Saturday, 25 November 2017

Sliding Furniture Puzzle

Having guests to stay focuses the mind wonderfully on getting the house in order. Unfortunately, to do that, I have to move what feels like heaven and earth.

All of the furniture which ended up in the guest bedroom during the house move was put in the wrong place and then hemmed in with heavy boxes and trunks (including a box marked 'fragile' which was put on the bottom of a stack and now contains broken glass). I still don't have my bedroom sorted out to my satisfaction (it contains furniture which should be in the guest bedroom, but which they couldn't find space for, as some of the boxes in there belonged elsewhere), and the dining room is a mass of packed boxes and various chairs. The lounge is a mess of craft stash. There are even packed boxes and a worktop full of bits in the utility.

Add into the chaos finding that the shed has been leaking and the decorating kit boxes contained a few inches of water and a strange compost of slug/snail droppings and wet fluff from some rags which have been gnawed by a mouse hoping for a comfy bed. Then one of the cats threw up on my duvet, so not just the cover but the duvet itself needed cleaning. And the dishwasher stopped working.

And then the new mattresses arrived about 4 working days earlier than expected. (I've just seen a mail telling me the mattresses are on their way. Nope, they arrived two days ago! And another mail telling me that the old mattresses will be picked up next Wednesday, with a request to confirm the pick-up via a link which doesn't work.) I now cannot move for large, heavy boxes. There's no way I can get my double mattress up the stairs on my own, I'm going to have to plead for help from one of my neighbours.

It was a bit like this when I first moved, too. Like one of those sliding squares puzzles where you don't so much have an empty square as an empty half-square, and you have to be careful how you use it so as not to hem yourself in. Over time, the stacks in the lounge and kitchen disappeared, and some of the boxes in the dining room. I should have taken photos, some of the stacks were about 4 feet/1.2 metres high.
Just like the sliding squares puzzle, I have to accept that some of the pieces will have to move more than once before they're able to move into their final positions. Unlike the sliding squares puzzle, some pieces are rather larger than others, and so many smaller pieces will need to move to enable, for example, the single beds to go where they were originally intended.

And of course everything needs cleaning and I have a mountain of laundry too. The patio and garden are also a complete mess, as I haven't been out to sort out the growhouse and swingseat, damaged by the first storms of the season, let alone pick up scattered pots or any more digging and clearing. That's very low on the priority list at the moment!

Faced with this knotty problem, I've had to revert to project management planning to try to find the ends to pull, which squares to slide first. The task list is still very long and I have less than a week to go.

It will be great to have made a significant dent in the unpacking, cleaning and sorting, though I wonder if I shall ever attain my goal of having a clean and tidy house with a place for everything and everything in its place.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Time Lapse

My blogging has lapsed somewhat, largely replaced by doing. While the weather was good, I spent spare time out in the garden, (currently) marked by my last published post in August, although there are (quite) a few draft posts which get looked at and tweaked from time to time.

When at my desk, I'm invariably working, still editing the magnum opus which came my way at the start of the year. It's a fascinating book set in 1949 Ethiopia, but irritatingly wordy, with dialogue in five languages and occasional words in a further two. The typescript was an incredible mess of typographical, spelling and grammatical errors, which are gradually falling away under my relentless nit-picking. I keep reminding myself not to over-correct or change the writer's style, that it's not my job to fact check - but inevitably, I've picked up on some anachronisms which needed further research and discussion. It's still very long, the equivalent of five average-sized novels, so it's undecided yet whether this will be one novel or perhaps a series of three or more. I'm really enjoying the work (although the amount of work I'm doing is disproportionate to what I'll eventually be paid!) and loving the way my relationship with the author is developing. I am learning so much about language and editing, and more than I ever imagined I wanted to know about Ethiopia!

I have also received a PhD thesis to proof-read, started earlier this year and now in its final stages. I've also quoted for another. Both have been affected by the supervisors' requests for rewrites. I've previously seen this 'you get it ready to publish, then I'll make suggestions for changes', which has the potential to become a soul-destroying, endless loop of draft versions and self-questioning - am I/is my work good enough yet? The answer, at least in my opinion for the thesis I'm working on, is 'this is awesome and you are utterly amazing!', but I guess the rarefied heights of academia have a more jaded and demanding attitude.

A combination of changeable weather and the conflict of what else I 'should' be doing has largely kept me out of the garden. The days flicker by and only time will reveal the cumulative effects of barely perceptible daily changes, like the comparison of first and last drafts, or the start and end of a time-lapse film. 

Sunday, 27 August 2017


Trigger warning! If insects and creepy-crawlies bring on an attack of the screaming ab-dabs, you might not want to read on ....

About 3 o'clock last Sunday morning, I was rudely awoken by being stung on the inside of my right forearm! Swearing loudly (I do find it helps in such situations; hopefully not loudly enough for my next-door neighbours to hear!), I quickly flicked on the bedside light, expecting to find a social wasp and keen to deal with it before it could sting me again. I found it was actually an ichneumonid, which rapidly left my forearm and flew off to hide. I didn't think these could sting!

My arm grew a red, burning, stinging lump the size of a pound coin before my eyes.  I couldn't see where the wasp had gone, and my throbbing arm disrupted my sleep for a couple of hours, until the antihistamine and Tiger Balm kicked in, reducing the unpleasant effects. I slept in late; the cats sensed something was up, and were very cuddly and purry, one on either side of me, comforting and protecting.

Ichneumonids are parasitic wasps (or more accurately, parasitoid, as they kill their hosts). They come to light and are often a nuisance while moth recording. I've also seen some of the day-flying ones in the garden, and was meaning to look them up, even if only to roughly genus level. There are apparently around 2500 species in the UK and they can be really difficult to separate, even with a microscope.

I looked up whether stings from the likely suspects (genera Ophion and Netelia) were known and there seemed to be some divided opinion on wildlife and gardening discussion groups. A few people said they'd been stung, and a number of other people replied that ichneumonids don't sting. Some sources state that the females can and do use their ovipositors as a sting in defence, although they don't have the poison sacs that social wasps have. Others have had Ophion sting them without provocation and noted that it was quite painful and caused inflammation, more than they'd expect from a quick jab. It seems reasonable to think that they can inject some sort of irritant, as they immobilise their intended host with it. Perhaps I'd trapped her under my forearm. Either that, or I smell like a caterpillar and she tried to lay an egg .... Ugh!

By Sunday night, the red bump was 3 cm in diameter and intensely itchy. As soon as I switched on the bedroom light, the wasp flew out from the lampshade. Considering how chaotic the house is, I was amazed I could find my bug box easily. The wasp was also easy to catch.

Monday, very grey daylight (call this summer? I'm in long sleeves and not impressed!); armed with the Natural History Museum's Beginners Guide to Identifying British Ichneumonids, I sat down to take a closer look at the offending insect.
The offending insect - Ophion luteus or similar
Using the lens on the top of the bug box I could see she was approximately 20 mm long, Orange body and antenna, no black or cream markings on the body and a distinct yellow line behind the eyes. From the wing venation, the closest I could get was Ophion luteus or one of the similar Ophion species.

Satisfied that I wouldn't get any closer than that, and noticing that the red bump was now in the centre of an inflamed area 7 cm in diameter, I emptied the bug box unceremoniously out of the bedroom window.

With a loud 'snick', a sparrow who'd been perching in the privet flew out and caught the wasp as she started to fly away. It felt like a sort of natural justice had been done.

Postscript: A week later, the swelling and inflammation has gone down, although there is still a pink bump. There has been one of these in the bedroom every night except last night, when there was an Ophion minutus or similar specie and then two of the larger ones. I got very fed up of catching and ejecting them, so last night I took a fly swat to the Ophion luteus (?). The first one took some beating; so I took the head off the second one and even then, it kept curling its body as if trying to 'sting' the fly swat.
No more Ms Insect-Tolerant Nice Lady as far as these are concerned.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Garden Goodies

Despite the ravaging hordes of slugs and snails (not to mention flea beetle and various caterpillars), the garden is producing food.

The few cloves of garlic I planted have made small bulbs and are ready to dig up. I became ridiculously excited over the small squashes appearing on the butternut plants and I've had to remind myself not to get my hopes up. There's a ripe chilli on one of the (bought-in) chilli plants and some tomatoes which are still green and struggling to ripen.
The courgettes are proving irresistible to the marauders, but I've managed to get a couple of small ones. There are still a few broad beans to be had, the runner and French beans have started producing succulent pods, and the peas have started to produce enough ready pods that I can pick a handful for the kitchen, probably thanks to the amount of rain we've had recently. I harvested the few carrots which escaped the gluttonous molluscs. And although one block of the sweet peas seems reluctant to flower, the 'Cupani' plants are doing okay and I've been picking some every few days to enjoy their luscious scent in the kitchen.

The bounty has given rise to my new favourite thing, a sort of pasta-with-whatever vegetables happen to be ready. This started the day I harvested the carrots. They hadn't made much growth, and there were only a handful. I also picked over the peas, beans, sweet peas and found a small yellow courgette.
I podded the broad beans, topped, tailed and sliced the runner and some of the French beans, washed and sliced the carrots and added them all to some pasta which had already had some minutes in boiling water.
In a frying pan with a little olive oil, I cooked some sliced onion and the sliced courgette, then podded the peas and added them to the pasta pan. When the pasta was done, I drained it and the veg, added the onion and courgette to the main pan and stirred in a heaped spoonful of garlic and herb soft cheese until it melted and coated the contents. So easy and delicious.

Of course it would be possible to do this with shop bought veg, and it would be great for using up other bits and pieces; half a pepper and a few mushrooms lying around in the fridge? Bung them in! Pesto instead of soft cheese? Why not?

But the flavour of the carrots was amazing, the beans so juicy, the peas so sweet, and the knowledge that I had prepared the soil and grown these from seed made the whole thing utterly satisfying. I know Monty Don waxes lyrical about this regularly on Gardener's World, but he is absolutely right. There's nothing like goodies from your own garden to make you feel that life is wonderful, even if the weather isn't.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Ravaging Hordes ...

I've had a break from doing much work in the garden for the past few weeks, due to changeable weather and a preoccupation with editing work, organising the preloved sales and technical side of the Cardigan Belly Dance Festival, and attending Joon Dance Summer school, of which more in other posts.

Before work and weather stopped play, the garden was slowly being transformed as I stripped away the grass and weeds and started to mark out the limits of the sections.
The vegetables section is the furthest along, with only a little more digging to do until it's all under cultivation bar a strip along the hedge. Providing, of course, that I can keep up with the weeding. I can't believe how much bramble keeps popping up, when I thought I had dug it out. As the original freestanding monster compost heap got to the same height as the compost bins, I decided to start building another turf stack/heap in the other back corner, where I had to dig out some bramble, and this is now a good size too. Compost bin #3 is looking ready to bag up, but there isn't space for a couple more bags behind the shed quite yet. Soon though, soon!

In the meantime, I've had all of the (first sown) Early Onward peas, enjoying them fresh from the pod, and the resown main crop peas have just become ready. I've also been enjoying broad beans, although sadly not the glut I was hoping for. Some of the plants have chocolate spot and others didn't seem to have any flowers! And then, there are some with big pods which look as though they should have beans in, but there's nothing inside. I'm not sure what that's due to; the weather has been quite changeable. Sometimes the rain is really only just enough to wet the surface and although under the surface seems quite damp, perhaps the moisture locked in the clay-based soil hasn't been accessible enough for the beans to flower and set pods
The runner and climbing French beans have started producing as well, although I was a bit concerned at first when the runner beans had lots of lovely scarlet flowers and no noticeable beans set (often an issue with runner beans). My neighbours probably think I'm completely batty, wandering around the garden telling the bees to go enjoy the bean flowers!

The sweetcorn and butternut squash plants look happy, although I wonder whether the sweetcorn will set cobs properly. Although they were all sown and planted at the same time, with the same conditions, some plants are more advanced than others and the male flowers at the top started producing pollen before there was any evidence of female tassels to collect it. Then last week, we had a day where it absolutely poured with rain - 37 mm! The roads were becoming rivers and ponds as I drove back from Milford Haven at lunchtime. It would have just washed all the sweetcorn pollen away. It's raining again today, due to be fine tomorrow. I might have to step in and pretend to be the wind!

The bush beans have been almost completely ravaged by slugs and snails, which have also been making inroads into the courgettes and have eaten the bush cucumbers to little stumps. I'm not sure, but I think perhaps my last remaining sunflower plant has also been nobbled. The cornflowers, aubergines, pepper plants and my salad leaves have been completely wiped out by the little blighters. That cut-and-come-again lettuce was looking so good and I was looking forward to it, then it all disappeared over a particularly damp and rainy night! The molluscs don't seem interested in the tomatoes. I wonder why certain plants seem to be irresistible, and others perhaps unpalatable?
I need to pay more attention to slug and snail control. I have been lobbing lots of  snails over the back fence, but started to wonder if they just come back. Perhaps I should mark a few snail shells just to see. I wonder if there is any research on this. Or maybe, since they seem to be eating all my veg, I should just eat snails instead?

I've been more watchful this year against the gooseberry sawfly which completely defoliated the gooseberry bushes last year and thought I was doing well, but having not been in the garden much over the past couple of weeks, I've found they've visited and wreaked havoc while my back was turned.

A few weeks ago, I called to see a neighbour, who very generously gave me lots of Welsh poppy seeds and offered me some strawberries too, but I assured her that I had some ripening nicely. The following morning, I went out to pick some and couldn't find any. A couple of days later, sitting on the swingseat with the cats and quietly enjoying my coffee, a terribly tatty-looking Mr Blackbird came down onto the patio pots. Speaking softly but firmly to the cats, I reminded them not to chase and they were very good, staying close to me. He kept an eye on us as he made his way to the strawberry pots and found a single, ripe strawberry, which he pecked and then pulled off the plant and ate. He looked at me as if to say 'Well, where are the rest of them?'. Poor lad, I think his need was greater than mine!

I didn't have a camera with me when the blackbird came, nor did I have one close for another highlight. A bee landed on a spinach plant which had bolted (the beets, spinach and chard have not been a success this year), very swiftly cut a semicircular piece of leaf and flew off with it. A little while later, I saw her enjoying the garden thug campanula flowers, a female leaf-cutter bee! These bees don't strip all the foliage; I don't mind the little cosmetic damage they cause and love the idea that there may be a nest close by.

I treated myself to a few cheap plants. The poor things are still waiting to go in, but at least they seem to be surviving the ravaging hordes!

An orange flowered Oenothera (Evening Primrose), I think the variety is Sunset Boulevard
Oenothera (Evening Primrose) Sunset Boulevard, I think

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Beautiful Dawns

Isn't it strange how some people are naturally morning people, 'Larks', at their best in the morning, and some, like me, are 'Owls'? The author I'm working with commented on the time of night I was sending emails, and I tend to get emails from him in the early morning. Another friend of mine is a Lark too - she's dead on her feet after a late dance class or rehearsal, just when I'm still wide awake (if feeling a little tired from dancing).

There has been some research done on this, and it seems our circadian rhythms or body clock settings are due, at least in part, to our genes. I'm not sure who else in my family is an Owl; perhaps I've inherited it from one or more of my grandparents!

For the past month or more, my sleep patterns have been all over the place. I seem to get a surge of energy after midnight, and have sometimes stayed up editing into the wee small hours, to be harangued to bed by the cats just before dawn. So, while I would normally not get up early, I often see dawns 'from the other side' in summer.

Still, my ability to sleep during the daylight and not feel sleepy when it gets dark hints that there is something up with my melatonin production. Although that's not healthy, I don't feel too concerned, as I know that I'll be so tired after (and possibly even leading up to) the Cardigan Belly Dance Festival and Joon Dance Summer School that I'll probably go to bed earlier and get a lot more sleep to rest and repair the body.

In the meantime, here are a couple of photos of lovely summer dawns.

8th July, looking north. The Cordyline australis (Cabbage Palm), silhouetted in the pre-dawn light, is in next-door's garden - it flowered beautifully this year. Mist lies in the Cleddau valley east of Haverfordwest like a blue lake. The red lights just visible left of centre are from the mast at Woodstock. The hills on the skyline are the Preselis, including their highest peak, Foel Cwm Cerwyn.

18th July, zoomed in a bit to the north-east. The sun was still below the horizon, but was already lighting the clouds from below. The horses munch away at the grass, seemingly oblivious to the glorious colours around them!

Friday, 21 July 2017

Coming up Roses and Concrete Blocks

It may only be a small garden, but it's still full of surprises!

Wandering past the lilac in late June, I glimpsed some pink flowers and could smell a beautiful scent. Parting the leaves, I found a rose which hadn't flowered before, had shot up into the lilac and produced clusters of big, beautifully scented flowers. I had noticed that this rose, which had been cut right down to the base when I moved in, had started growing. I've no idea which rose it is - another mystery to solve - but I hope it repeats later in the season. Looking at the photo, it seems to be quite a lilac-pink, and I'm not sure whether it was that colour, or whether there is a colour cast to the photo.
Looking up into the lilac at a newly discovered rose!
To the left of the lilac is a tall rose, a floribunda but with Hybrid Tea-shaped buds, which I think is 'Queen Elizabeth'. I only pruned it lightly for the past couple of years as it too had been cut back hard when I moved in. This year, it's approaching 6 feet/2 metres tall with more flowers than last year. The furled buds looked lovely, just as the 'mystery' rose's flowers were starting to fade at the end of the first week of July. It's now opened into pink cups which look and smell just like the 'Queen Elizabeth' my parents had in the front garden.
Queen Elizabeth?

At the same time, a rose which only produced one or two flowers last year opened several clusters of flowers, a hot, bright pink with paler petal backs. As an experiment, I lifted one of the clusters to my nose, and there was a very light perfume which I couldn't place; not a usual 'rose' scent, it really was like perfume. It looks like a ground-cover rose as it lies around and is badly placed next to the path by the shed, where it can grab and scratch legs on the way to the compost heap. But that curious perfume makes it a keeper, so I shall need to find somewhere sensible for it to be moved to. I don't really have room for a ground cover rose; perhaps it could be trained up a support of some kind. Of course, it could be a rambler which is only just finding its feet, but perhaps the leaves of 7 leaflets with their rounded tips might help to identify it.

Hot pink ground cover rose

It's a good thing I was planning for some pink roses in the back garden! The sprawling cluster-flowered rambler near the patio has just had another, smaller flush of flowers. It resembles some pictures and descriptions of 'Clair Matin', although others show/describe that rose as salmon-pink, especially the buds, and with a larger flower and a larger flush of brighter gold stamens in the centre. It also looks like some pictures of Narrow Water, although other pictures of 'Narrow Water' show fully double flowers, instead of semi-double. Perhaps being well-grown makes a difference to flower size and colour. I know too that scent varies, but a couple of descriptions of Narrow Water state that the scent is strong and musky, which doesn't match 'my' rose.
I'm also no closer to identifying the rose growing up the front porch, although I noticed it was pinker and less red than I thought. I wondered if it had faded in the hot sunshine. I could do with a trip to some rose gardens, to compare roses in real life instead of pictures and descriptions. Hopefully when I move the roses I shall come across a handy label or two!

Digging up the last of the crocosmia from near the washing line, in preparation for the Mediterranean herb arc, I came across a bit of dead rose root with a label wrapped around it - 'Warm Wishes'. What a pity. It's such a lovely rose I may have to buy a replacement. All of the roses need some care and attention, as they all have some black-spot and die back and are not in the right places for them.

With the need to clear space to plan and plant a few things out in the shrubs and flowers section, I got stuck into the digging, working from the line where the shrubs and flowers section meets the veg section. I was progressing well and had got to roughly the middle when I met some resistance, forcing me to move the fork around a bit. A heave on the fork resulted in a loud 'twang' and I pulled the fork out to see one of the tines had been bent way out of line. Curious, I worked around the lump and eventually found that I was working around a block of concrete set about 4 inches/10 cm below ground level. Well, that couldn't stay there! It would be taking space needed for the roots of the shrubs and roses which would be planted there. At least this house isn't old enough for me to worry about buried air-raid shelters! It took me a few more digging sessions to uncover it and work down the sides enough to see what I'd got.

Yep, that's a block of concrete ...

What on earth? I used a crowbar and my fork to lever it up out of the hole and onto an old compost bag, where I could take a proper look. That round thing in the top is the top of a washing line pole holder. Then I remembered a comment, that the older lady who'd lived here had her whirligig line here.
Ahha, could this be the solution to my own washing line, which still had a tendency to list to one side despite all my work to set it more securely in the ground? I cleaned out the hole and dragged the block over to my washing line, clearing away the soil, stone and rubble which was doing a poor job of keeping the soil spike upright. The hole in the holder set in the concrete was too small to accommodate the soil spike with its flanges, and rather too large a diameter to take the pole itself!  So I reset my soil spike, trying to do a better job by getting it a bit deeper, firming it in harder, pouring clay soil solution around the stones this time. It's still a bit wobbly but it is better than it was.
The concrete post holder has been dragged back up the garden and left under the hedge. There may still be a use for it. A flag pole, perhaps? Or a pillar on which to train a rose?