Sunday, 27 August 2017

OUCH! WTH?

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?

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Dolphin Day 24 June

After an extremely last minute flurry of emails and organisation, it was with a great sense of excitement that I drove up to Fishguard to join a Sea Trust Dolphin Day, to look for cetaceans and other interesting marine life on a Stena Line ferry trip to Rosslare and back. It's something I'd promised myself I would do, even though I was a little daunted by the idea that I could be a lonely, know-nothing newbie in an established group.

My small rucksack lay unused for the past few years and all but one of the zips had stuck. With some white vinegar, patience and lip balm, I managed to unstick all but one (on a side pocket), which was so corroded, the zip pull just disintegrated. Some of the elastic fastenings have also gone, but I like this rucksack because it seems the right size for me and has a raincover. Into the rucksack went a packed lunch, sunscreen, binoculars, camera, purse, phone, keys, coat, long scarf, mitts and sweatshirt. I had a late breakfast on the patio, the cats begging a share as usual, and hoped that the forecast for a slight sea state would be right. It was a bit grey, but mild enough for a T shirt. Time to go - I shut up the house, locked the front door, and it started to drizzle on me. Typical!

Only a couple of miles down the road I joined a long queue of traffic into Haverfordwest, which seemed to have no cause. Halfway to Fishguard, I started to see heavier traffic and a number of Irish lorries. The ferry was obviously in, but I still had plenty of time.

I had no idea where I was supposed to go at the ferry port, as I couldn't see a sign for the long stay car park, but I saw someone else zoom past and used the 'follow someone who looks like they know where they're going' method, ending up where I needed to be. After that, I found the group quite easily, and everything was friendly, relaxed and well-organised.

The ramp up to the ship and the three flights of steep stairs up to the deck were hard on my knees, but I soon forgot that in the fresh air. There were Cormorants, but no sign of any dolphins as we left the harbour, and I soon put on first the sweatshirt and then the coat in the damp wind. It didn't look promising as we headed toward Strumble Head, the lighthouse eventually flashing out of the murk.
Foggy and grey around the coast, looking towards Strumble Head

Thankfully, it wasn't foggy at sea. Standing on deck with a foghorn sounding and no visibility would have been horrible. There were quite a few of us, so we divided into three groups. I was in group 2, and we spent the first and third hours on deck, and the second in an area next to the bridge. The initial greyness lifted and we sailed on into Irish sunshine, despite the wind which had us all lined up against the port side rail, as the buffeting on the starboard side was a bit much. No dolphins or other cetaceans, but the Manx Shearwaters and occasional Fulmars, Puffins and Gannets kept us entertained. Attempts to capture some of the beautiful shearwaters flying close to the ship highlighted the limitations of my little point-and-click camera. All I could see in the back screen was my face. It seems I saw a Cory's Shearwater (not that I knew it, at the time, just noted it was bigger and greyer). Occasional gulls over the ship kept an eye on anyone with a sandwich as we scanned the sea for feeding seabirds, splashes or other possible tell-tales, difficult to discern amongst the glitter and occasional white wave tops. By the time we got into Rosslare, there were still no sightings.
Tuskar Rock lighthouse
Tuskar Rock lighthouse
We didn't disembark, but had an entertaining quiz and a meal to while away the time. The quiz was fun, but I really need to mug up on my seabirds and cetaceans, because there were very few questions to which I knew the answers. Sorry, team, will do better next time.

I also saw some terns, but couldn't pick out enough detail to identify them, even if I'd know what I was looking for. ('Use it or lose it' applies to knowledge too!) Oh, for more powerful binoculars and a camera with a viewfinder and more zoom on the lens! I caught a Turnstone skittering away, but missed lots of other birds. That wasn't all I missed. Although there were no sightings on the way out to Rosslare, there were some on the way back. A report of a possible Risso's dolphin, too distant to be certain, generated some excitement, and a little while later, a couple of pairs of dolphins came up to the ship, and then under it. For the first pair, I was looking in entirely the wrong direction, and for the second, could see nothing but glare from the perspex deflector (a problem of being a short person!) Then nothing for ages, with Cliff of the Sea Trust groaning 'Come on, find me some dolphins!'. Eventually, I needed to find the ladies' (or perhaps that should be the heads, since we were on a ship), which was aft and 2 decks down, quipping to Cliff as I went that he was bound to see something while I was gone.

Sure enough, I got back having missed all the excitement, and Adam Tilt showed me a couple of shots on his camera which you can see (and read his post on the day) over on his blog My Life Outside. You can also see more photos and another post on the Sea Trust blog Whales in Wales.

After that flurry of activity, there were no further sightings and we arrived back in Fishguard as the light was fading. Stiff and achy from standing for the best part of six hours or more, I staggered back to the car and was back in my house by 10.15, to the relief of my fretful cats.

So, I was perhaps the only one not to see any dolphins on the trip, but so what? I had a really enjoyable day in good company. It was affordable and good value for money. Stena Line staff were stellar, and Sea Trust interns Rens and Laura were outstanding for their organisation and quiz.

I paid for it the next day! I was only a little wind-burned, so the factor 50 did its job, but found my hands were stiff from clutching my binoculars, my knees and feet were on fire from all the standing, my back hurt, even my fringe was tangled, and I felt dehydrated. Evidently, doing anything productive was going to be a bit difficult. Some serious rest was in order, something to bear in mind for next time, along with finding my Buff (the scarf was a bit too warm and cumbersome).

Yes, next time; I want to go again! So, when's the next one?

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Garden Plans - Still on the Drawing Board

I haven't drawn out neat plans for the garden yet, but had formed some definite ideas about the way the front and back gardens might look. The wisdom of living in and with your space has asserted itself recently, as my ideas have changed.

In the back garden, I had an idea for a second path curving from the left side of the patio up to the shed, which sits two-thirds of the way up the garden on the right, and branching off to (eventually) a greenhouse on the left mirroring the placement of the shed. A perspective path, it would start wider than it finished, hopefully fooling the eye into thinking the garden is longer than it actually is. However, it would have required a potager-style arrangement for the vegetable growing, and I was having difficulty envisaging how to place the fruit. Once I started sowing and planting out the vegetables, I remembered how practical it is to have fixed, rectangular beds, maximising the space to plant in blocks or rows (considering that I want lots of veg, not just the odd item here and there) and facilitating rotation and soil preparation. I couldn't make that work with a path curving through the space.

Then I became quite fascinated by the internal geometries in the garden space. The garden (excluding the patio) is approximately 9.35 x 14 metres, which is about half a standard allotment plot. The length is about 1.5 times the width, and I decided that I would divide the space into thirds; the first for the shrubs, flowers and herbs, the middle section for the veg, and the end for the shed, compost, greenhouse, and fruit (although the latter may spread slightly into the other sections). The area for the veg is going to be roughly 5.4 x 4.6 metres or approximately 24.75 square metres.  I'll need 6 beds for rotation, (1.4 x 1.7 metres to allow for narrow paths between, or perhaps 3 strips 1.4 m wide x 3.8 long, with a virtual divide halfway up each bed?)

I haven't changed my mind about having herbs close to the house, arranged in two quarter circles either side of the path. Mints, lemon balm, parsley, chives and Welsh onion on the right, where the south-side fence and the side extension cast some shade. A couple of friends have reminded me to ensure I plant the mints in a sunken pot to constrain them, but I haven't had a mint patch yet which supplies as much as I can use when I start making mint tea, tzatziki and various salads. The area is currently covered by membrane and gravel, so I hope there is soil under there, and not concrete a few inches down. On the left, in an arc around the washing line, will be the herbs which like better drainage. The heavy soil has been improved in the past as there is lots of top-dressing gravel in the soil, but it will need more grit and some horticultural sand, and probably a top-dressing of grit too.

One of the most difficult things will be choosing what to plant by way of shrubs and flowers, due to limited space. Looking at my notes, I see recurrent themes:
  • sensory (primarily scent, but also colour, sound, textures, taste)
  • a 'twilight/moonlight' area close to the house using white and pastel shades which reflect light and with night-scented flowers such as stocks
  • richer shades between the mints and the lilac
  • roses and more roses
  • perhaps some dye plants?
  • buddleias for the butterflies
  • other food plants for insects (although when it comes to larval food plants for the butterflies and moths, it gets a bit difficult - but some sacrificial flowers such as nasturtiums might distract from the brassicas!)
Actually, that doesn't narrow things down very much, if at all! There are plants which aren't scented, which I really want to include, and excuse them on the basis of texture in terms of contrasting leaf shapes and colours, or because they attract pollinators. Things like Stachys lanata, with the silvery, furry leaves (definitely by the path in the 'moonlight' section). And although once the lime green, frothy heads are past their best and flop untidily everywhere, Alchemilla mollis (lady's mantle) is a must because of the way moisture beads and collects on the leaves - irresistible! And aquilegias, polemonium, Siberian iris, bugle, any type of poppies, cottage garden annuals such as cornflowers and nigella (love-in-a-mist). And foxgloves, Verbena bonariensis, and I might need something to continue the colour into autumn. I have lots of primulas and grape hyacinths in spring, just because they seem to like it here, but currently I have nothing for winter, scented or otherwise. I shall have to think about that. Can I make space for a small pond somewhere too?

In the front garden, I wanted to create something scented, bright and colourful which would lift the spirits of passers-by. Originally, I was inspired by Monty and Sarah Don's Jewel Garden, and envisaged bright and jewel colours (not just greening grey Britain but splashing it with multi-coloured paint!). It's quite a small space, approximately 5.3 x 4.5 metres, surrounded by a low wall on three sides and the house on the fourth side. (I've just done a double-take at those figures - it's almost the size of the veg patch!) Anyway, I thought that a rainbow mix of colour might be a bit much in the space, so decided to go with mainly shades of yellow, orange, blue, purple. Mainly, that is, because there's a crimson rose one one side of the door, which I shall pick up with a scarlet oriental poppy on the other side, and I suspect some red monarda will find its way into the planting (though I intend to keep pinks to the back garden!). A path needs to carry on across the front of the house, to the gas meter, but after that, I'll need a pathway which will give a little space and working access to the planting without being too fussy. Something based on a quarter circle, an echo of the herb arcs, considering this is almost the same size as one of the thirds of the back garden? Another thing to think about, as well as ensuring the planting has something of interest for autumn and winter.

After all the recent coverage of Chelsea and Chatsworth's show gardens, it's easy to think of gardens as things which are created, springing into being over a matter of weeks so that you can just enjoy the space and maintain it a bit, like mowing the lawn. Indeed, that's possible if you throw money and a team of landscape gardeners at the project. But, as Monty Don reminded us in this week's Gardener's World, gardening is a process. Working on my own and with next to no budget, it's going to be a long process, but between working in the garden, enjoying its produce, planning and dreaming, it will also be hugely pleasurable and fulfilling one!

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Gardening and Beating the Blues

I've been struggling recently with feeling a bit down. I wouldn't describe it as depression, because that is rather more serious and difficult to deal with, but feeling sad and low is bad enough. It robs me of energy and motivation, and I find myself moping for hours at a time.

Since earlier this year, we've had local and general elections and Article 50 has been triggered to start the process of leaving the EU. The impression is that Britain is in a complete shambles and it's probably going to get worse before and if it gets better again. I'm still in a grump about Brexit, because I can't get my head around the 'great opportunity' it's supposed to offer. Still, I feel very sorry for my friends in the USA and I worry that their country is not in safe hands.
The news is unrelentingly depressing; the political rhetoric of dangerous lunatics in power, so many countries involved in conflicts, so many refugees and tragic deaths.
The terrorist attacks in Manchester and London were awful, the atrocities made worse by the targeting of children at the Ariana Grande concert and the indiscriminate violence against people just going about their business. There have been approximately 725 terrorist attacks globally to date this year (source - Wikipedia), which may actually be fewer than for the first 6 months of 2016, but with attacks in London and Manchester, it feels closer to home, however distant those cities feel, both in miles and culturally from this quiet backwater. Not all of the attacks are related to the plethora of Islamic fundamentalist organisations, of which so-called Islamic State is a major force. There are plenty of other violent organisations and individuals, including white supremacists, and most recently, an attack apparently fuelled by a completely misguided racial hatred and desire for revenge coming only a few days after the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Adam Warne's death in early April came as a shock, but I was also terribly upset over Yvette Cowles' death on 4th June. She had been living with and fighting back against cancer for 20 years or more, and had been less well this year, so it wasn't a surprise, but was still immeasurably sad.

In the meantime, my lovely boy-cat Greebo has been unwell too, with a problem with his hind legs, no sooner sorted than he suddenly developed an intestinal infection and had to have antibiotics for a week.

It's midsummer! Half the year has gone already. The thought of how quickly time goes is enough to send me into a panic! It feels as though I my days are punctuated by moving things around the house and putting various other things into various bins; compost, recycling, glass, non-recyclables, special recycling (printer ink cartridges, light bulbs, spent batteries ...), laundry ... more laundry ... more compost .... And despite all the binning, I struggle to keep myself mucked out.

I can see from my Facebook echo-chamber that I'm not the only one feeling like the world has gone mad. And some friends have sick children, which must be far more difficult to cope with than a sick cat! All we can do is send love and kind, supportive words and spread some love.

Still, Facebook and particularly TV adverts leave me feeling left out. The world appears to be made of and for couples and families, having holidays and all sorts of fun. I have no money, as usual, can't afford a holiday and have no significant other(s) to go with, even if I could afford it

Gradually, I've come out of my slough of despond. Gardening and dancing, both working like moving meditations, have been key activities. The physical work leaves me tired enough to sleep well enough, my cats and I, sprawled and curled in a heap on the bed. Gardening has been particularly useful, as if feels very constructive and productive, as weeds are uprooted, compost heaps grow, patches of soil appear and coalesce into beds which then have vegetables planted into them. The cats love being outside with me, and play with bits of vegetation trailing from the tubtrug as I trundle to the compost heap with it. They make nests in long grass and in the shade under the hedge, and sit with ears and whiskers pricked by the pile of privet branches (evidently some squeakies live under it).

I don't dwell on the huge amount of work to be done, but go out with a job or two in mind. I may or may not complete those jobs. I may get side-tracked and do other jobs. Whatever I do, even if it's only meditating on my swingseat, it's all fine, it's all progressing, and that, I find, is a great way to beat the blues.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Too Much and Not Enough

A drier and sunnier than average April (although only slightly warmer, and it didn't feel like it!) gave way to a drier and sunnier (and slightly warmer) than average May.  I have a 'farmer's tan' - forearms, face and V neck. I love it when my face goes freckly!

I'm still removing the blasted brambles. The patch I'd cleared about a month ago for the main lot of broad beans and peas showed a new bramble shoot the other day, so I dug it out. It was at least a foot long! I was sure I'd got all the roots out of that area, but at least it was easier to remove from the worked ground than the stuff which is coming up through grass, the shoots only noticeable when they scratch me as I walk through. I  fold and squash the bramble into and old compost bag, and then weigh it down with a brick so that the top isn't open to light and moisture. The bag is now full, because it doesn't die easily, even when it's been left to dry and wilt in the sun. Thank goodness for my big hide gauntlets!

The cats have loved the sunny, dry weather, sprawling in the grass, on bare soil, on the patio in the sun and then in the shade under the swing seat. Greebo has been poorly; he came in limping one day at the end of April, the right hind swollen and hot. He was uncomfortable rather than in pain, but I ended up taking him to the vet just in case, after he transferred the limp over the following couple of days to his left hind, then left fore, then left hind, then right hind, then left hind again. He had anti-inflammatories, and I discouraged him from jumping anywhere for a week, but he seemed happy enough limping around the place. No sooner had the limp disappeared, than he came in one morning, threw up and a couple of hours later, was miserable with abdominal pain, lethargic and growly (always a bad sign when he growls at me and won't eat!). A dash to the vets the same afternoon saw him pumped full of painkillers, anti-emetic and broad-spectrum antibiotic, in the hope we were dealing with enteritis and not something potentially nastier. A follow-up appointment the next morning saw him still a bit lethargic, but eating, drinking and purring again, so he had a week's antibiotics. He was very good about the tiny, 'palatable' tablets, daintily taking them from my fingers as if they were sweets. One morning, I was a bit slow about getting the tablet out of the blister pack and he miaowed impatiently at me. He seems fine now, although I think his old injury of his left hind when he was young (a subluxed hip and/or knee) has led to osteoarthritis, as he now sits and lies unevenly, favouring that leg.

I meant to record butterflies, but forgot, and just enjoyed seeing the first, fresh large whites, female orange tips and once, a small copper, gleaming in the sunlight. This was sometime in mid-May, I think. Since then, they have been conspicuously absent. I have also not done any moth recording. A poplar hawkmoth came into the bedroom one night, and the cats went mad trying to catch it before I managed to get it back out of the window.

The Bunyard's Exhibition and Express broad beans are flowering and are being visited by at least 2 different species of bumble bees, neither of which are Early Bees. There are plenty of those too, working over the various flowers including the thug campanula. They're not nesting in the compost heaps this year, but presumably there's another nest around somewhere.

I wrestled my bird feeder stand out of the shed several weeks ago and set it up near the pile of hedge prunings, more in order to provide a dish of water for the birds in the dry weather than to feed them (although the feed dish has been a handy receptacle for soil pests, heh heh! There you go birdies, grub up!) I put out my last net of peanuts and fat balls, more to support the nesting parents. The blackbirds didn't nest in my hedge, nor in next door's shrubbery. Mr Blackbird seemed to disappear off to a tree somewhere in the vicinity of the garages at the north end of the terrace. Mrs Blackbird was very much more elusive. Wherever the blackbirds were nesting, they came back into the garden to feed and preen, shouting at the cats if they were around. Still, Mr Blackbird is now using the hedge and the lilac as a home base to feed 2 chicks, and presumably Mrs has a chick to feed too, somewhere. The net of food didn't last long; a few of the rooks found it and one tried very hard to unhook it, pulling it up and then standing on the end to pull some more with his beak, turning and yanking it to try to get it off, but I'd made sure it would be hard to remove. The jackdaws in my chimney have fledged in the past week too. The house sparrows beat everyone to it; their first chicks must be at least a month old now. The alpha male was strutting around importantly for about a week, while guiding the chicks around. I was quite worried for him, as he was so pumped up that he almost had no fear of me or the cats, and sat cheeping with his wings spread and tail cocked, at arms length from me as I worked in the garden.  I've seen him taking bits to the nest in the corner of my roof today, so I take it there are more chicks on the way.

The buddleias from under the washing line survived their move, as did one which had grown down into the gravel bed and then fallen over, breaking its root. One of the fuchsias has still got its leaves and is putting on new growth and I thought the others had had it, but another two have sprouted strongly from the base. I'm still trying to get the washing line to stand upright. despite wedging the spike in with bits of rubble, it somehow works loose and the line itself ends up listing. It's driving me mad. No wonder people set the spikes in concrete, I might have to do the same!

The compost (presumably my own rather than the shop-bought) has volunteered some tomato seedlings and they have been growing away strongly. I've no idea what they will be, bush or indeterminate, cherry or beefsteak, but they look happy and healthy plants so apparently they're happy outdoors. There is a tray of tomato seedlings in the growhouse, but none of the various pepper seeds have germinated. I didn't really expect the older seed to germinate, but the new little tester packs of mixed sweet peppers and a couple of different chillies should have been okay. Maybe the temperature in the growhouse is a bit too variable. Too late to resow now, as peppers really need a long growing season; I might have to buy in a couple of plants. The germination rate on the runner beans was low too, but that's okay, the germination rate on the French beans (bush and a few climbing from older seed) was great. The maincrop peas also completely failed. The seed was Hurst Greenshaft from 2 years ago, and it should still have been viable, but it just rotted, so I had to buy some more seed, (Ambassador and Vivado, since the local garden centre had sold out of Hurst) and the second sowing is just sprouting now. The earlier peas have some flowers on. The courgettes, bush and climbing beans and sweetcorn are all hardened off and waiting for me to clear some more ground, the brassicas ready to grow on, and there's the problem. The monster freestanding compost heap is at least a metre high, everything is growing like mad and the longer it takes me to dig the over the space, the more compostable material there is. Soon there will be nowhere to put it. Until, of course, it has rotted down to a beautiful rich loamy soil, and then there won't be enough of it!

As is traditional for the late May bank holiday, it poured with rain. A couple of days later, there was more rain, and spectacular thunderstorms. I lay in bed, cats snuggled against me, watching the light show outside while watching the lightning strikes appearing real time on a map (courtesy of LightningMaps.org). Since then I've only managed another couple of gardening sessions (although one was really just trying to get more bramble out rather than clearing space), it's been too wet to work. Then, last Monday's torrential rain (two inches in 24 hours!) gave way to a yellow warning of high winds on Tuesday (5-6 June), since when it's back to a spot of unsettled weather. The occasional fine half-day isn't enough to dry the soil enough to be able to work it. We needed the rain, but it's a bit all-or-nothing!

Compared to what I was used to, this space feels really small, so I shall need to get smarter about interplanting and catch-cropping. However small it feels, it's taking me forever to clear and prepare the soil. I think I've managed to clear a third of the veg area so far (because I'm also attacking the area for the flowers and herbs, which is roughly the same size, plus a 2 metre wide strip which is currently a gravel bed)

A good digging session will see about a square metre cleared; the turf taken off the top, deeper weeds dug out, hard pan broken up a bit and the various stones and bits of glass, plastic and other rubbish (most recently, the remains of a shoe!) taken out. On average, I think I manage about half a square metre at a time. But I shall clear the area, half a square metre at a time if needs be! Hopefully, it will stop raining for long enough for the soil to dry a bit and allow some more digging time!

Too much and not enough seems to be a theme at the moment. Not enough rain, then downpours. An area to clear which seems enormous, until the plants go in and eat up the space. Too much compostable material, taking a long time to create compost which will disappear across the space in no time at all. Even the cut-and-come-again salad crop doesn't come again fast enough, but I have really enjoyed being able to add my own crops, including some herbs and radishes, to my salad bowl, and love adding a mixed handful of home-grown chard, spinach and rocket to wilt down with pasta.

First garden salad of 2017 on 25 May
First garden salad of 2017, 25 May

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Spring Flowers without the April Showers

The April high pressure settled in and only gave way to rainy weather a few times, so it's been a dry, cool month. Ideal gardening weather, but I had to mostly sit it out for a couple of weeks to rest my back.

I gingerly planted the short rows of pea Early Onward and broad bean Bunyard's Exhibition, grown from small 'sample packs' of seeds, creating pea supports from some of the privet branches I'd stacked after hacking back the hedge in February. I found the back pain very limiting. The slightest bend, twist or stretch and my right quadratus lumborum (QL) would go into spasm. I did some seed sowing - more broad beans, peas, a trough of cut-and-come-again salad leaves, a cauldron of rainbow radishes, rainbow chard, more sweet peas, and resowed the beetroot, which hadn't germinated from the first sowing (probably too cold, and old seed). As I pottered, I reflected that if I was out of action for long because of my back, I wouldn't have the ground ready for any of this to go into.

Bed rest and gentle exercises seemed to help. I treated myself to a cheap 'growhouse' - a tubular metal frame with shelves, topped by a transparent plastic cover with a zipped 'door', it probably gets warmer in there for anything needing to be sown 'in heat' than if I put it in the house (even if I had the space on the window ledges, which I don't). Courgettes were the first of the tender seeds to be sown, along with some sunflowers and nasturtiums, more sweet peas, more broad beans and some peas.

A friend from Saundersfoot offered me a massage to help with the back. I hadn't seen her for a few years while life got a bit busy (although we keep in touch via Facebook - love it or hate it, it is good for that sort of thing!)  She was brilliant, finding and releasing lots of painful trigger points and making sure I was comfortable. What an angel! Although I still felt a bit sore for a couple of days, it really helped. Nearly a month after injuring myself, I still get the occasional twinge, but I thought I would be out of action for a lot longer.

25th April was quite a windy day when I went to Saundersfoot, and just as I was leaving, I heard a crash from the patio, and could see the growhouse had fallen over. Later, I found it had impaled itself on the buddleia. I put it upright, but it wouldn't stay up in the wind, and each time it flew a few feet and fell over, it landed on a different pot or shrub and the cover tore again. I left it for a few days (it rained hard on the 29th and was still a bit grey and drizzly on 1st May, despite a weather forecast for dry weather!) This past week has been quite nice and dry again, so I sorted out the growhouse, put it back together, mended the cover, re-potted the spilled and now sprouting seeds it contained. (Almost everything was okay, except for the peas, of which there was no trace at all!) Then I found some bubble-wrap to go around a paving slab, which I put in the centre of the bottom shelf. To hell with whatever the weight limit is supposed to be, try falling over with that weight in the base! It was tested by the extremely brisk easterlies a couple of days ago and stood firm. It now also contains sweetcorn, French and runner beans and Florence fennel.

During the couple of weeks I was 'resting', everything seemed to burst into bloom. The dandelions, which I had been persuaded to leave as an important nectar and pollen source for bees, flowered and burst into a sea of dandelion clocks with scarcely a bee visiting them. So much for that, the smart bees know there are much more interesting flowers to visit. The Clematis montana and the lilac look particularly gorgeous. The bugle I propagated last year has beautiful flower spikes. The aquilegias, which I had been digging up to pot on, suddenly put up flower spikes, and I realised how many had self-seeded across the back of the garden. They would completely collapse if I tried to move them now, and are in the way of the difficult terrain near the back fence, so it seemed like a good idea to go with the course of least resistance and clear some ground from the centre of the garden instead.

I started by digging up yet more blasted bramble, and just randomly dug around. As the dry spell continued, it has become easier and easier. The soil is still stony, so I'm still met with the 'thunk' of fork tines hitting stone, but there isn't so much of it. There are patches of hard pan, which needs a bit of work. There is also quite a lot of pea gravel, so it has been improved, probably by the original owners who were keen gardeners. Although the soil is obviously fertile, it is also obviously clay-based and could do with further improvement. I'm amazed by the amount of broken glass in the soil. I had expected to find greenhouse glass, as I'd been told panes were broken when they removed the old greenhouse with its warped frame. There is quite a lot of bottle glass too. I've also dug up more pendulous sedge, this time apparently planted with a bin bag around its roots, and there are all sorts of bits of plastic. But, on the bright side, no bones, bits of asbestos sheet, lengths of barbed wire or rusting chunks of farm machinery. Also, no stone axe heads, spindle whorls, coins, or buried treasure. But I have found a jingle-bell (which doesn't jingle, as it's full of mud), a blue seed-bead, a button and a bit of clay pipe-stem. Treasure enough!

While digging, I've been thinking about my technique. I used to be good at using both sides of my body evenly, standing square to my fork and not working to one side or twisted. Obviously I lost the knack in the few years when my knees were really badly painful and I stopped working the veg patch on the farm. So it has been good to do some mindful digging, reminding myself to correct my alignment, to use both hands. Between improved technique, less back pain, taking frequent rest breaks and lighter soil, I've found I am clearing the ground quite well. The area to be cleared still seems quite dauntingly large, although I know once I start planting, it won't seem big enough. Broad bean Express has lived up to its name and has now been planted out.

The problem with digging up all this turf and weeds (not to mention still trying to root out brambles) is that the freestanding compost heap is now a complete monster. I've been using turves to build walls to it, while loose weeds and kitchen waste go in the middle, adding accelerator every few inches.

The swifts arrived sometime around the 5th or 6th of May - I forgot to note the exact date, although I remembered thinking as I heard their excited squees as they scythed through the blue sky that they were a month later than the swallows. I'm making the most of the fine weather while it's here; I have a feeling this might be our summer!

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Remembering 'Rhythmic Ginger' Adam Warne

Sometimes, thankfully not very often, someone comes into my life and then leaves it quite abruptly, and I find myself mourning their loss terribly and completely out of proportion to how well I knew them. The disproportionate grief is made even worse by the knowledge that it is utterly selfish self-pity. My potential friend has gone, not fair!

The latest was Adam Warne, known by many in the UK belly dance community (and elsewhere) as Rhythmic Ginger (the latter for the colour of his hair. I've never understood why red-haired people get teased and bullied. Red hair is beautiful.).

He was an awesome musician, particularly at home on drums, hence the belly dance link, but he was also a percussionist for the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds. He could pluck rhythms out of the air, weave them together, and make the drums talk, sing, whisper, sigh.

I grabbed an opportunity to go to his workshop with Josephine Wise on dancing to live drumming at a JWAAD Fantasia festival, and was delighted when my friend Rose invited him to come with Catherine Bartholomew as our 'visiting teachers' in February 2016. His love of drumming was tangible and infectious and he was a great teacher. I got so much out of those several hours of workshops, covering lots of rhythms, various middle eastern percussion instruments, different techniques for playing darbuka and frame drums, ergonomics for both dancing and drumming, and what to look for in a drum. I bought a frame drum from him, and treated myself to a new darbuka with my birthday money.

After my solo in the Saturday night showcase, he came up to me and complimented me on my dancing. He sees a lot of dance and dancers, so it meant a lot to me that he enjoyed my dance and thought it and my interpretation of the music were good.
It was a great weekend. We wanted him back for more workshops.

The shock and disbelief at the news that he had died suddenly in early April echoed around Facebook. We knew he'd been ill and had major surgery, but he seemed to be getting better. Then he died, apparently in his sleep, so we can hope it was peaceful. As the tributes and memories started to pour in, it became clear just how many lives he had touched, how well-known and loved he was. So many photos and stories of the bands he'd been in, holidays, his music and lyrics, his humour; so many friends, so many happy memories.

Another reminder, if any were needed, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone, and you never know what will happen, so seize the day and live life to the full! I am so grateful for those workshops and the brief conversations I had with him.

Not being one for selfies, and concentrating on the workshop too much to take photos, all I had was some video of him summarising the day's workshop. So I took a still from that, while he was in full flow about the maqsoum rhythm and a framework for practice.
Adam Warne Rhythmic Ginger teaching Cardigan Small World Theatre February 2016
His funeral is next week on 4th May, a month from his death. As a Star Wars fan, I hope he's looking down on us and enjoying the joke. May the fourth be with you Adam, you already are and will be sorely missed.
Although I hardly knew you at all, it looks like you left the world a better place than you found it, as far as those who knew you are concerned. Goodbye, you lovely man.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Backbreaking Ground-breaking

The Spring Equinox arrived, and I really hadn't done much in the garden, nor been able to. Trying to hasten the end of the vile cold, and take advantage of a few fine, sunny days (high pressure and a chilly easterly wind, before the prevailing westerlies brought more of unsettled, grey, rainy weather), the garden called. Oh, the pleasure of being able to go out every day for a little garden fix! In the recent rainy weather, I really started to miss the polytunnel we'd had on the farm, where I could sit and sow seeds or pot up/on seedlings, warm and cosy while the rain came down outside.

I'd decided that, since I can't afford to deal with the structural elements of the garden, the main planning and framework could wait, since most of what I wanted to grow more or less come under the heading of annuals - in other words, vegetables. And for that, I would need to clear some ground of the weeds, omnipresent brambles, dandelions and a dense thatch of grass. Which meant that the compost heaps would need to be dealt with, ready for the mountain of grass and weeds to come.

The compost seemed like a big job, so I put it off in favour of a little light digging to clear a patch ready to take sunflowers, peas, beans, courgettes and whatever other vegetables I manage to grow. Working back from the rear fence seemed a good place to start. This is the area which was formerly under a Leylandii (probably)-topped earth bank, although you wouldn't know to look at it now and I wondered how long ago it had been done.

I found another couple of purple crocus had popped up where I'd removed a few previously, so I lifted these and potted them up for safe keeping and replanting. Last year, I'd found some gold-painted pebbles close to the patio and path, (where I'd also found a broken plastic label buried a few inches down which read 'Happy Mothers Day') and was amused to find another gold pebble with the crocuses.

A big clump of pendulous sedge came out easily enough, and appeared to have been planted with a plastic bag around its roots. Everything else was hard graft, and after an hour I had only managed an area approximately 1 x 0.5 metre. This is a heavy, stony soil, so I'm not digging in the usual sense, using a spade and making decisions about whether to double-dig or not (I wish!). I could scarcely get the fork in 10 centimetres (four inches) before hitting stones and it soon became clear that it was not just natural stone. Bits of concrete, broken brick, glass (lots), tile and pot, odd bits of plastic - basically, household and building rubble, which I removed as I found it, separating the glass from the rubble into a separate pot. Oh dear, it is going to be a long, hard job.

The last Sunday in March, when the clocks changed to British Summer Time, spurred me into a flurry of garden activity. I bought a load of bagged up, 'bare root' style perennials very cheaply from Lidl, bought bags of compost and potted them up. Then, since I had already had a few attempts at getting the buddleias out from under the washing line, I had another go at them, determined to get them out before the weather broke, as the soil would get wetter again. The soil is so claggy, it sticks to everything and seems to pull against the thing you want to dig up. It has been getting drier and easier to work, but it was hard work just getting the smaller of the two buddleias out.

After much digging and cussing, I wrestled the larger buddleia out, leaving broken bits of root somewhere in the depths of the earth. I had to cut the roots back further to get it into the enormous pot I'd prepared for it. It remains to be seen whether the buddleias cope with the move.

I continued to tackle the ground-breaking in small steps, gaining less than a 50 centimetre square patch for an hour's work, ending up with more by way of weeds, rubble and glass than seemed possible for the area cleared.

On 2nd April, I decided that the compost really needed to be done, so most of bin 3 was emptied into 3 empty compost sacks and a selection of pots, ready for use. The contents of bins 2 and 1 went into the emptied bin 3, and then bin 1 got a mix from the top of the free-standing heap, while bin 2 got mostly slightly older stuff from lower down the free-standing heap, which cleared most of the heap, but left a layer of perhaps 20 centimetres. Oh my, the number of worms in the heaps now is wonderful! (I even disturbed some making more worms, oops, sorry wormies!)

7th April: the first week zipped by and I had still not got some good clear space to plant the first batch of peas and broad beans. I had another go near the back fence, then tackled a large dock in the grass nearby. despite dry-ish weather, it was like digging into a wet sump. I didn't manage to get the whole root out, but hopefully enough of it to put it off growing again.

The weather was lovely, and it was a pleasure to work outside with the occasional peacock, small tortoiseshell or orange tip flitting by and a red kite flying over for the second time that week, much to the disgust of the local seagulls. I potted on and tidied up the lemon and olive trees, taking off the first two lemons and reflecting that small things like that make me so happy.

I dug up and transplanted the fuchsias which were coming up out of the grass. Where the wet grass had lodged against the main stems, the bark just sloughed off as I tried to separate them from the grass and bramble which was coming up through them. The three plants I thought there were turned out to be five, though whether any will survive the move ...?

I keep finding bits of plant label for the garden thug campanula. (How many of the wretched things did they plant? One is more than enough! The same goes for the crocosmia. I'd toyed with the idea of interplanting something with crocosmia in the front garden, but I can see it doesn't grow like that - it spreads to form dense patches. Anything planted with it wouldn't stand a chance, even the campanula!

All this exertion called for a sit down with a glass of water, and I watched Mr Blackbird attacking a pot's contents. I went to have a look at what was so interesting. The primula in the pot was not looking well, and there was no sign of the hyacinth which was supposed to be in the pot with it. Emptying the pot out revealed several vine weevil grubs, which were duly squished and left for the birds to clean up, should they so desire. Blasted things.

I went into the front garden to have a dig there. I started attacking an area of old grassy thatch and peeled back the 'turf' to find loads of grubs and caterpillars. Each bit of grass I got up revealed more. It looks like I have an infestation of vine weevils and cutworms, with the occasional chafer grub thrown in for good measure. Much as I love moths, this number of caterpillars is excessive and between them and the weevil larvae, nothing would grow. Something will have to be done.

As I tidied the tools back into the garden cupboard, I wondered when the swallows would return and though my mind might be playing tricks when I heard 'chi-deep, chi-deep!' I looked around, but saw nothing. Then again, an excited 'chi-deep, chi-deep!' and a couple of swallows tore past. They're back! Poor things, it's still quite cold.

A couple of days later, and some more digging up near the back fence, slowly but surely a couple of metres by perhaps 1 metre, large enough to put the first few peas and beans in. Such slow and heavy work, my back really ached and I had to have a hot bath and early night. Around three in the morning, I awoke in agony, my right quadratus lumborum, (the square-ish/rectangular muscle which connects the top of the pelvis to the bottom of the ribs at the back between spine and waist) was in spasm, and I found I was doing involuntary hip lifts as the contracting muscle lifted my hip up to my ribs. I'd obviously strained it while digging and reaching mostly with my right hand, and it was rebelling. Cursing, stretching, massaging it and doing some mindful breathing, accompanied by concerned, purring cats, got me back to sleep again, but it's been a really painful three days of rest since then.

It looks like gardening might be unwise for a while, just when a spell of nice April high pressure, dry, sunny, cold weather is forecast. Perhaps I should somehow find a catapult, collect some of the vine weevil and moth grubs and fire them into the air for passing swallows, although they haven't been much in evidence since their appearance last week, because with the cold wind, they could surely use the extra food after their long journey back to us.

Still, I have fresh lemons for my favourite drink, so it could be worse.


Friday, 24 March 2017

Mindful Meditation and the Common Cold

Why is it that, when you have something to do, somewhere to go, some anticipated event or just some happy holiday time to spend in serious lazing about, a cold makes an appearance? I've been lucky this winter, successfully fighting off a couple of incipient colds, but this one has descended on me with a vengeance, making me feel ill and irritable. If the old saying 'Three days coming, three days here, three days going' is correct, then it is now here, although I have already had a rough couple of days. It's not due to start going until Sunday, which means I'm not going to be on top form for the belly dance party on Saturday evening. If it weren't for the fact that I have offered lifts to others and have some pre-loved clothing to sell in aid of Medecins Sans Frontieres, I would consider cancelling. Yes, I feel that poorly!

I nipped out yesterday to buy a stack of menthol and eucalyptus sweets and treated myself to a sandwich while gazing out at the Cleddau from Brunel Quay. The tide was heading out, and there was a lot of water in the river, running very fast, but otherwise not a lot to see. I felt a bit better for a little while, but decided to get home before the next wave of sneezing and coughing made my driving too erratic for safety.

I'm half-way through a 6 week mindfulness course (run by Mindful Future Wales, a local CIC), thinking that it would round-out and gap-fill my existing practice (which it is). Last week, we covered Compassionate Acceptance, so I thought it would be a really good time to practise a little mindful meditation on accepting that I have a cold and, while I can't change that, I can change how I feel about it.

So, settle and focus on the breath.
Yes, it would be nice to be able to breathe normally. How can a nose be blocked and dripping at the same time? My head feels as though it's full of heavy cotton wool, my eyes stream as if I'm crying and I can scarcely keep them open.
Re-focus, breathe. Shut your eyes, it's okay.
I have to breathe through my mouth. My mouth and throat become dry and a tickly cough starts.
Take a sip of water, have a cough sweet. Breathe. Relax.
My nose is dripping onto my front. I wonder if it's possible to tie a handkerchief, like an under-nose face veil, to catch it?
Nothing needs to be fixed. Let it be.
I feel a tingle in my nose and grab a handful of tissues just in time to catch the outflow from a series of gargantuan, bladder control-defying sneezes, which leaves me shaking and groggy. I have a splitting headache.
You're okay. It's just a cold. Everyone gets them from time to time. It's here to give your immune system a workout, then it will go. It's a signal to be kinder to yourself.
Yes, indeed. And the kindest thing I can do at this moment is to make a mug of hot lemon juice and honey, and retire to bed early.

Well, that was yesterday. I slept for nearly twelve hours (again - third time this week!). I still feel ill. This morning, the sun is shining, it looks beautiful out there. I shall do a little meditation on my patio swing-seat, then do some digging, where my nose can drip away onto the earth and I can sneeze or cough without making the furniture rattle. Then a hot bath can sort out any aches and pains.
Isn't this self-indulgence?
No, it's self-kindness, giving yourself what you need to feel better sooner.
I find myself re-reading what I've written, stuck.
Go on out, enjoy the sunshine; it will do you good!

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Impatient to Get Gardening!

What do you do when it's too cold, dark and wet to go out into the garden and Gardener's World hasn't started yet? (It starts this week, so I won't have withdrawal symptoms for much longer!)
Do some garden planning, perhaps?
My preferred way to do this is in a hot bath with a mug of herb tea, a notebook and pen, and a stack of seed catalogues, but I don't seem to have received any catalogues at my new address, despite sending change of address information. It looks like paper catalogues are now by request, which is sensible, and I failed to request them, which is not.

Despite my lack of planning, I'm feeling impatient to get out into the garden again. There were a couple of mornings with sunny spells recently. On 24th February (or 23rd, perhaps?), I even ended up in my T shirt at one point, and could hear a bumble bee somewhere in the hedge. The cats thought it was great, sprawled on the patio or the swing seat in the sun. I was transplanting aquilegia and crocuses which had popped up in the grass. I found a bag of compost leaning against the shed, and wondered where I'd got this wonderful, rich, dark brown, crumbly compost from. Then I remembered - this was the bag I used to hold the almost-ready compost from one of the bins last year! Oh my! It's now possibly the best compost I've ever made! I only managed to transplant half of the aquilegia and ran out of appropriately-sized pots, so need to buy some more - and some more compost. The more I dig in the garden, the more I realise how stony and claggy the soil is. It could do with a lot of improvement. And in the meantime, I also have various roses, buddleias, fuchsia and whatever else needs saving, to dig up and plant in pots while I sort out where things are going to go, and create some dug-over soil for them to go in.

Having run out of pots, I had another go at some brambles and retreated indoors just as it came over all cloudy, in time for lunch. And then it started raining. Again.

March 1st - St David's Day - saw me cutting back the buddleia which needs to come out from under the washing line (I started trying to get a garden fork around and under it, but that will be a big job!). Mrs Blackbird decided that nest-building was the order of the day. Mr Blackbird just posed around on the top of various sheds while she frantically chucked leaves and bits around, taking beak-fulls of grass, small twigs, moss and so on back into the hedge. I think she might be in a bit of the privet hedge behind the camellia near the patio. She went crashing through the camellia several times when I was out there, despite the fact that I was working just a couple of metres away. I warned the cats to leave her be and they happily complied. I think they sensed that if they got too close, she would just go berserk and attack them. She carried on nest-building in the pouring rain the following day too, and I haven't seen her since, although Mr Blackbird has stopped posing so much and now just sits on the hedge or in the lilac, singing away. A dunnock has been providing some competition. He has such a lovely song.

Since then, I haven't managed a proper gardening session. I managed to prepare a couple of pots and made first sowings of beetroot and spinach. The sun came out the other day, and I got my shoes, gloves and coat on, only for it to start spitting as soon as I got out there. Within half an hour, it was coming down really hard, leaving standing water on the horse field on the other side of the garden fence.

The spring flowers I have in pots are really pretty, and the hellebores, which appeared as seedlings in the edge of the gravel 'bed' the year I moved in, have large, dusky pink flowers. Buds are breaking out all over - the first of the camellia flowers are opening, it won't be long before the Clematis montana flowers, and I can see colour on the tips of the lilac flower buds. I want to get out there, but there's little point when it's so wet. The birds and flowers are putting me to shame - they're getting on with the business of early spring, whatever the weather!

Friday, 3 February 2017

Big Garden Bird Watch 2017

The net of bird food worked, so that despite the rain, my hour of birdwatching on Sunday 29 January proved quite fruitful.
Present and correct:
2 Blackbirds (male and female)
1 Dunnock
8 House Sparrows
1 Blue Tit (although I've seen 2 around)
1 Robin
5 Starlings (just a small delegation from the number locally)
2 Jackdaws (likewise)
1 Chaffinch (female, first time I've seen one in the garden)

Absent without leave (previously seen in the garden, but sadly not present to be counted):
Wren
Song thrush
Bullfinch
Goldfinch
A couple of Long-Tailed Tits which were working over the nooks and crannies in next-doors fence during the previous week
Collared doves
Woodpigeons (probably just as well - the maximum number I've seen in the fields behind during summer has been 18. Just imagine that lot descending on the brassicas!)
The local Rooks
Various gulls which visit the field behind me

By Monday afternoon, the bird food had all gone. After today's cold and rain, I'd better buy a lot more! I'm so glad the number and variety of birds has picked up since I moved in. I think I'd better add some nest boxes and a permanent feeding station into the garden plans!

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

January in the Garden

Some relatively calm, fine (but cold) weather recently saw me out in the garden for the first time in possibly a couple of months. The soil is too claggy to dig, it's rather cold to be potting up the last few plants from the ex-lawn. I didn't have the energy (or the bare soil) to turn over the compost heaps, so just had a look into them to see how things are going. The worms seem happy, and I'm happy to see lots of them. One day I pulled out a couple of tub-fulls of weeds, dead fern fronds and leaves. The free-standing compost heap is now cascading everywhere. On another day, I contemplated what I might do with the out-of-scale lilac, to bring it under control without just cutting it down to a level where it can regrow (still working on that one; internet research hasn't brought up any suggestions, either). For the time being, I contented myself with using it to support a netted string of fat-balls and peanuts, to see if I could attract more birds into the garden and stop the blackbirds pulling my potted plants to bits. If it works, I might even do the Big Garden Birdwatch this year.

Besides, the thing I perceive as the main obstruction (in my mind, at least) is the need to remove the privet hedge (and probably the old concrete posts and rusty chain-link between them) on the north side of the garden and replace it with a sturdy fence (the north side and back are 'my' boundaries). Which will need money I don't have (at the moment, at least). I decided I could take some steps towards this by cutting it back, so I could at least see what work will be needed, and that I should do this before any birds get the idea of starting nests in there. The local jackdaws and collared doves have been pair-bonding for a while. A pair of blackbirds, who were nesting in the hedge the year I moved, but nested somewhere in next-door's Kilmarnock willow and surrounding shrubs last year, I think, have been back and forth between our gardens. I hope they nest next door again, as my cats would be only too happy to break my stern injunction against bird-chasing, if they thought they could get away with it.

Top-heavy and tangled, the hedge sprawls drunkenly two metres or more out from the true fence-line, reaching out towards the sun. There is some fence towards the end of the garden, but discounting the patio, the hedge runs for about two thirds of the length of the garden on that side, reducing the width of my garden by 20%. A fifth of the width! It also protects the omnipresent brambles. I've also been digging out bramble again in the garden. I'm 8 inches down in one spot and still can't get the root up. No wonder it springs up all over the place. I had to give up when rain stopped play, but the blackbirds have been delighted to peck around in the hole once the cats and I went back inside.

I've had a couple of goes at hacking back and clearing up, punctuated by a bit of grooving to next-door's radio as the son of the house worked outside and chatting with him through the thinned portion of the hedge to catch up on some news. I missed being yapped at by their little Yorkshire terrier. She had cancer and they had to let her go late last year. Apparently, where the hedge gives way to fence panels on that side, there was an earthbank across the end of the garden, on top of which there were tall trees, which were removed and the earth dug away so that the back of the garden could be fenced and used. No wonder the soil at that end seems so thin and stony, and I've dug up rotten tree roots. I'd heard before that there was a Pembrokeshire bank along the back of the houses, but I wonder if it was, in fact, just an earthbank created by levelling the site when these houses were built in the '50s.

Also chats with the neighbour on the other side; they've been having some work done on their patio and side passage, and having had the back end of the latter demolished, found that the wall between us was on a thin raft of concrete and, not keyed into the buildings, was wobbling precariously. I had thought that there were walls between all the houses, because the walls on either side of my space were identical, but it now seems likely that the people who were in my house built both walls. The workmen have taken it down and replaced it with fence, but there's currently an uneven edge to the concrete where the wall started on my side, and a void beneath the fence panel through which I can admire my neighbours' new patio paving, which appears to be at the same level as the main part of my patio, but which is probably 20 cm/8" lower than the area outside my back door/side passage. Work was done to extend and renovate 'my' side passage in 2005 (?) and there are a couple of shallow steps up to come in through the side door at the front, as well as a height difference at the back, so I suspect it has to do with the drainage for things like the walk-in shower.

The sight of a flock of lapwings against blue sky also interrupted my fight with the hedge. The largest flock I've seen this year has been around 100, same as last winter, but (unlike last winter, when there were lapwings around earlier) although I heard a few at night in December, I didn't actually see any until January.

Now it's February. I've removed roughly half the hedge, but it's still a twiggy, untidy mess, still plenty to do. I really need to finish up and create some space to grow veg, but the weather has turned. Every time there's a clear spell and I put on work shoes and gloves, it starts raining as soon as I go back outside. It may be mild, but I would rather not work in the rain.

Looking along the north hedge, half of it now on the grass
Hedge hacking in progress
No wonder everything is so green! Some of the campanula on the patio has had occasional flowers throughout the winter, and there are now flowers on some of the primulas and rosemary. I thought I had a pot of snowdrops, but couldn't find it the other day. However, the many muscari (grape hyacinths) have little flower spikes just waiting to shoot up, and the ipheion next to the front porch has a flower on it too.

A friend commented that it was 'such a lot of work', but I like it. All I need is some better weather so that I can do a lot more!

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

It's More Than Just A Dance Class

Another term, another manic round of  finding and reminding dancers to register, liaising with the Adult Ed department to try to determine whether there are enough for the class to go ahead (a floating number depending on how many pay which level of fees, which no-one seems able to estimate until at least 10 are registered) and preparing classes.

Then, revising the plans a little due to a change in location (industrial carpeting is horrible to turn on! The ceiling height looks okay - would we hit it if we used canes or Isis wings?) Then ensuring our Facebook group and my website have all the up-to-date information. From an organiser's point of view, whether that's an Adult Education organisation or the teacher themselves, trying to get a class going, chasing up enquiries, booking and checking the venue, marketing, advertising and planning the class, it's all necessary work, but is also unpaid expenses until the class successfully goes ahead.

And then, the day before the class is due to start, I hear that two have failed to pay. So now those who did pay for the term have no class, and no prospect of a class at least before half term, and want their money back (a pain and further sunk costs for the community education centre, although I would probably have gone ahead if it were one of my independent classes). Why the drop-outs? One I now know about; flu' over the holiday season left a harsh cough and such strained intercostals (never mind gasping for breath) that her doctor instructed her to rest for at least the next few weeks. About the other, whom I don't know but who was apparently eager to join the class, I have no idea, and neither does her friend who already comes to class.

We've been here before. A few years ago, a dancer was asked and repeatedly reminded by one of her friends to let her know about the class. She gave her all of the information, each time her friend asked her about it. Eventually, her friend stopped nagging 'let me know' and it turned into a sort of accusatory 'you were supposed to let me know'. Exasperated, the dancer reminded her friend that she had let her know, she had given her all of the information, every time she asked. She'd encouraged her friend to come, reassured her; in fact, done everything short of dragging her friend out of the house, driving her to class and back, and paying for her. All her friend had to do was show up (and pay), but she never did. And although 'but I didn't know about it' was evidently not an excuse, we never knew the real reason why she didn't come.

Nor have I had any sign-ups, or even enquiries, for my independent class. It's 15 miles away, which means no-one from the other class wants to move to that one. I've decided that I'm going to keep that room booking and use the space-time to work on my own technique and choreographies, or perhaps the odd private lesson if anyone wants one.

There has been some interest, but no real commitment, for the collaborative piece I proposed last summer. It seems impossible to get all half-dozen dancers together even for an initial meeting.

WI and other talks/demos bring forth regular comments of 'I would love to' or 'perhaps next term/year', but what stops the wish from being fulfilled is anyone's guess. I chat to the ladies over tea and biscuits at the end of these sessions to try to get to the bottom of that. It's evident from the feedback that belly dance is not what they thought it was, so much so that I now include a 'myth-busting' section in my talk (it's not the preserve of slender, leggy young women, you don't have to bare any flesh/tummies/legs, you don't have to be fit, coordinated or be any good at it to start, it's never too late, ... and so on).

I deplore the idea, which I've heard repeated in adult education circles, that adult 'leisure' courses are mainly for the idle rich, but there may be some truth in it. Belly dancing can be a problematic topic in terms of engaging adults, who can find any number of reasons why not to do something. As always, it probably comes down to personal priorities and more intangible reasons for not wanting a dance class, although belly dance classes are not the only classes which are failing to run through insufficient interest. It seems many really just don't want to learn (or feel they're being taught). I can understand this for those who aren't academic and have just finished full-time education, and there are some who have been put off lifelong learning by their experience of school.

Whatever the reasons for not coming to class (and I've posted an example of this before), there are good reasons for getting out there and continuing learning.

If belly dance itself is more than just jiggling your bottom, then learning to dance is about much more than just dance. That's just the vehicle for learning - it can be a very broad topic, from working on rhythms using finger cymbals to exploring the music, history and culture, or political and feminist issues, to building self-esteem and confidence.

Everyone needs physical activities, even the less able-bodied and it doesn't have to be sport. Just walking a bit more is free and contributes to the recommended minimum of 150 minutes of moderately-paced (that is, it gets you warm and a bit sweaty without leaving you unable to speak!) activity per week. However, dance offers the full package, improving balance, posture, range of body and joint movement, muscle strength and cardiovascular capacity. Belly dance is particularly good for core muscle strength and its benefits for balance, posture and digestion, and is low impact, so kind to ageing joints.

Furthermore, learning involves brain activity, promoting thinking skills, improving concentration and attention span, widening interests and generating ideas. For some, the main enjoyment comes from social interaction,making new friends and reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation.

I often worry about the future of public sector Adult Education services, not to mention my own work as an independent teacher. When classes close, it can be difficult to get them restarted and the resulting lack of funds can start a vicious circle, reducing the availability of classes. Yes, there is a lot of free information available via the internet, but it's not always a good substitute for being taught in a class with others. So don't wait for things (life, weight, whatever!) to be perfect before you start doing things you might enjoy, because one day when you decide you want a class, it may not be there. Use it or lose it!