Colds, whistles, buttons and plywood.

January seems to have gone on for ever. It’s always a sombre month but this year in Westdean it’s excelled in dreariness. No snow, no floods, no hurricane force winds, no sun…in short nothing dramatic to complain about nor any joyful days to lighten the gloom. Just unrelenting melancholic low cloud, mist and cold. And to make matters worse everyone seems to have had the lurg, not helped by the local GP cheerfully saying ‘ah, you’ve got the 90 day virus’. So venturing into the garden for anything more than opening the greenhouse door or getting logs in for the fire has been a non-starter.

Luckily we’ve got Taz (the dog not the postman) to cheer us up (Taz the postman is always cheery despite his shorts and frozen knees). He (the dog, luckily not the postman) is also more cheerful now that he’s had his - how can I say this delicately - I won’t bother - his balls removed. Not that he was happy on the day itself…we’ve never seen a dog so miserable, but then, I suppose so would I have been. 

But now that he’s recovered he’s off to dog training lessons and that’s where whistles come in…one blast for sit, two blasts for wait and three blasts for come back you little bugger.

Staying with us for a few days, granddaughter Bay was mesmerised by Rosie’s collection of old buttons. I suspect most grandmothers have a button box though I doubt that custom will last much longer as haberdashery, sadly, is a dead duck for today’s young.

Having been disparaging about January’s weather it was actually quite pleasant today so I trotted into the garden to see what’s what. The oranges in the greenhouse are looking almost edible, the hellebores are blooming, the garlic and broads are poking up and the snowdrops and bulbs are, I reckon, about a fortnight ahead of last year.

But what about plywood? Have a look at this:  It’s our son Sebastian’s latest passion, alongside his cycling. His wife Gemma climbs rocks but her real passion (Sebastian apart) is making curtains and blinds        Creativity, you see, is not dead after all. Hurrah.

Happy Christmas Everyone!

For better or worse, Christmas is here at last. The cards have been sent, the presents bought, the decorations are up and the food’s in the larder…it’s all set to go. But today it’s the calm before the storm because no-one arrives till tomorrow. So today we’ve been out for a morning trudge, taking faithful hound for his first walk towards the world famous view of the Seven Sisters, beloved especially by east asians for whom it’s their number one screensaver. (NB to all my Korean readers: if you want to see this view for real, don’t get off the bus at Exceat Tourist Centre. Just saying.)

As it’s Christmas, and to get you into the spirit of things, here’s a cracker-type riddle: What have mince pie pastry, home-made muesli, lemon meringue pie and Christmas cake all got in common? If you’re stuck, I’ll give you a clue: Taz. No, not our postman, whose real name is Malcolm, but our wonderful freshly minted dog. And if you’re still clueless the answer is he scoffed the lot (not the postman, of course, but the wretched animal).

But still, he has redeeming features (the dog) and to prove it here he is helping to decorate the tree and making sure the birds are safe from the squirrels.

As for the garden, that can look after itself for a while. We’re inside for a few days having a glass of this and that, and eating whatever Taz has left over.

An addition to the family.

As if looking after this garden isn’t enough we’ve now saddled ourselves with a further complication. A dog. Dogs require walks. Dogs dig up flower beds. Dogs poo on the grass. Dogs chase cats. Dogs bark. Dogs bite postmen. 

But how could we resist? Just look at him:

His name is Taz. He’s already made himself completely at home. We must be mad.

November Days.

Some people complain about November and dash off to sunnier climes. Some complain and stay but just carry on complaining. Others, more philosophical, more stoical, accept November for what it is: mostly murky but with the occasional day of joy. Me: I love November because we get our Puckamuck delivered. Lovely stuff, Puckamuck. Good enough to eat. Have a look:

That’s my pal Matthew delivering two and half cubic metres of steaming stable manure last week on one of those joyful sunny days. Puckamuck and sun: double joy. 

And it means it’s the time of year to begin renovating the flower beds and tuck up those wimpish dahlias before the winter freeze does for their tubers. If they had their way they’d be off to sunnier climes too but because they can’t they sulk and turn up their toes at the first light frost. When the going’s good they look arrogantly wonderful but prick their egos with some cold and they snivel and expect sympathy. At which point we cut them down to size and wrap them up in, guess what, Puckamuck.

But today was one of those days when it’s best to be inside: dreary, dark, drizzly and chilly. Help, I’m beginning to sound like a dahlia.


Taken to task again.

This time by a brother: ‘if you’re going to quote Lonnie’s lyrics you might as well get them correct'.

I plead guilty. Having for years regaled anyone and everyone who unwittingly mentioned lilies I’d reply as I did in my last blog. As apologies are now all the rage I do so unreservedly and offer you the proper words:

I say, I say, I say

My dustbin’s full of lilies

(Well throw ‘em away then)

I can’t Lilly’s wearing them

If you feel nostalgic you can listen to the complete version of My Old Man’s a Dustman by clicking here: .

But the skiffle king’s real hit was Cumberland Gap. Watch and worship greatness:

On the quest for clean pond water.

I got some stick from my sister for my last blog - “not convinced by your schoolboy excitement over matters sexual” - but this one too is a bit dirty I’m afraid. But, you’ll be relieved to know, not in that way. So in an effort to redeem myself let me tell you about Adam the Aquarius.

Here he is:

And here’s what he does: anything to do with ponds. We found him via the classified ads in the RHS Garden magazine as we were looking for someone to advise us on how to clean up our very murky pond water. As my regular readers will know, we’d tried various remedies to no avail so the expensive solution - a filtration unit - was the only remaining option. We were advised by Adam’s boss that a pair of Hozelock Bioforce Revolution 14000 units would do the trick for a pond of our size, so last week Adam arrived to install them.

But first he had to empty the pond, all 6000 gallons, remove the fish, all 269 of them, clean out the silt, about three wheelbarrow loads, trim the lilies (‘How do you know they’re lilies? Because Lily’s wearing them.’ L. Donegan, 1960.), and power-wash the pond lining. Here’s proof of Adam’s dirty doings:

That took him a couple of days. After which he had to install the filtration units: this meant digging holes to part-bury them and gouge trenches to take the cables and hoses to and fro the pumps in the pond. Half a day later he was able to give me the go-ahead to refill the pond, partly using the mains water supply (expensive as we’re metered) but mainly using water from our own well. The only snag with the well-water was that it kept running dry - the water levels of the local aquifers are so low because of GLOBAL WARMING MR TRUMP - so I had to adopt a routine of filling for half an hour then allowing two hours to top up the well before I could sneak another half hour’s worth for the pond. Still, in the end there was enough water for the fish to be re-located and the lilies reinstated. Here are pictures of Adam’s cleaner doings:

And here are pictures of the pond, before and after. Still looks murky to me but Adam assures me that patience is the thing…and trust that it’ll be clean in the end. Just like this blog.

And so to bed.

Before I was called to lunch by Rosie I had intended to mull over the business of putting the garden to bed. But an hour or so later, after idly picking up today’s Times Magazine to read as I ate, those four innocent words have quite a different meaning. Apparently a pair of New York comedians - female both - are the hosts of Guys We F***ed, a weekly podcast that’s been downloaded 35 million times on which they chat, no holds barred, about their sexual encounters. Threesomes, dick pics (which spell check has helpfully tried to correct to duckpins…sexting penis pictures apparently), orgasms, pussies, dildos, rape, blow jobs…you name it, they’ll talk about it. I must admit I spluttered over my porn sandwich…sorry prawn (they’ve got me at it now). If you can bear to listen to their NY accents you can hear their escapades at .

But perhaps it would be better to revert to the much more innocent topic of the garden’s bedtime. At this time of the year there’s so much to be done, and quite a lot that’s depressing knowing that it’ll be another five months before the garden begins to perk up again. Collecting up all the garden furniture and trying to stow it away in the shed, knowing the inevitability of needing something in the far corner no sooner than you’ve done so, protecting tender terracotta statues in bubble wrap, bringing plants into the conservatory, de-figging the fig tree of the second crop, deadheading the dahlias to squeeze another fortnight out of them, picking the last of the tomatoes, finally accepting the courgettes and autumn raspberries have finished, raking up the autumn leaves, knowing that the current rain and warmth will keep the grass growing and the mowing necessary till, probably, early December…it’s all part of the fun and routine of gardening. 

As, of course, is preparing for next year. The murkiness of the pond is an ongoing project: we’ve tried Aquaplancton, barley bundles and oak logs to clear it but none have solved the problem so now we’re going for a filtration unit. Which means digging trenches for electric cables and all the expense of the unit, the pumps and the installation. Still, the fish will be pleased if the pond becomes gin-clear (as Aquaplancton boldly claimed their product would do), but so, I’m afraid, will the local herons (“all the better to see you through, my dear”).

And then there’s planting 2000 bulbs in the paddock, chain-sawing the pile of logs nicked from the forest for the wood-burner, deflowering the pots on the terrace and replanting with spring bulbs, planting the broad bean seeds and garlic bulbs…and on and on till bedtime. And thence to dream. But of what?

A mixed bag

Why is it that August has the reputation of being a sunny summer holiday month when in reality it is infuriatingly unpredictable and almost always disappointing? This year’s been no exception, so why should we be surprised. Partly because we’re all optimists I suppose but mainly because our brain is wonkily programmed to tell us that August was always hot when we were young.

But in between the rain, the chill and the bank holiday heatwave there were many jobs to be done: the wild flower meadow behind the house had to be cut, allowed to dry, raked up, transported to the bonfire and burnt, the lawns needed mowing every week and the two beds in front of the terrace needed a complete renovation. All this sandwiched between my continuing obsession with butterflies and visits from our grand-daughter, to whom, for some reason, I am God.

The meadow job is, in decent weather, hard work but fun. My trusty Tracmaster cuts the long grass to snail height, the sun and wind dries it within a few days for it then to be raked up and burnt though not before leaving the best bits to be deposited elsewhere in the meadow to drop their seeds.

But the job that really needed doing was replacing the lovely but ancient lavenders, rebuilding the retaining wall of one of the beds and digging to remove hundreds of allium bulbs of various sorts, the Japanese anemones and the knackered topsoil. What we didn’t anticipate was the extent of the task nor what we’d find within the two beds. Cue photos:

Whoever made these beds twenty or so years ago hid a multitude of sins: an ancient brick path, an unprotected main water inlet, a rusting but disconnected tap, lumps of concrete, many and huge flints and worst of all an old rubbish pit containing years of rusting metal, old bottles and broken glass. In those far-off days there weren’t council rubbish tips so a hole in the ground was the only answer. The one thing there wasn’t was treasure: no coins, no jewels, no gold bars, just a few clay pipe stems. Not surprising really as the inhabitants a hundred years ago were impoverished farmworkers, toiling their socks off for the lord of the manor in order to pay their rent. 

And here’s me complaining about the lack of treasure when the same house is today worth half a dozen gold bars. How times change.

News Flash: the green luminescent beetle-y thing.

My many blog readers - all three of them - will be overjoyed to know that the green beetle-y thing has made a surprise reappearance this afternoon, and here it is:

I’ve struggled to name it (no, not Arthur, that’s a silly name for a beetle) but I think it’s a Rose Chafer. Or Cetonia Autata if you want to be nerdy. But if anyone reckons it isn’t then please let me know. If you can be bothered.

Thanks a lot, Mr Attenborough

A few weeks ago David Attenborough suggested we take 15 minutes out of our busy lives to sit in the garden/park/countryside and count how many butterflies we could see and if possible identify. What a nice idea, I thought, and what a pleasant way to relax after the busy month and a half of garden openings. So one fine morning, when the sun was shining, the birds singing and butterflies flitting hither and thither I popped into the garden via a buddleia bush at the top of the steps. Ah-ha…three Red Admirals and a Peacock immediately. This is going to be a doddle.

But no. Once I’d gone beyond into the land of wild marjoram, carrot and basil, knapweed, viper’s bugloss, field scabious and so on the whole venture took a different turn. Not only were there dozens of butterflies dashing from one plant to another, but some were large and others tiny, and they wouldn’t stay still for an instant. And none were recognisable to anyone but a hawk-eyed lepidopterist. So what to do?

Time for my trusty camera: set the ISO to 1600, select continuous shooting (5 shots per second) and auto focus, and hope to shoot a butterfly with wings open. That did the trick but another problem immediately presented itself: hunting the butterflies down and taking their pictures then became obsessional. Whenever the sun shone I was out there snapping away, chasing what I hoped would be a new species usually to find later it was one I’d already got plenty of pictures of.

And finally of course I needed to identify everything which meant ordering a couple of books from Amazon, waiting for them to arrive and then trying to distinguish, for example, a Gatekeeper from a Meadow Brown or the undersides of a male Common Blue from an Adonis Blue. Not easy and extremely time-consuming.

l-r: Common Blue male, Common Blue female, Small Copper female   

Wall Brown male, Marbled White, Dark Green Fritillary.

 To make matters worse still I found I became even more obsessional. I began chasing pictures of anything that moved: dragonflies and damselflies, bumble bees and wasps, even hanging around for ages for a wonderful luminescent green beetle-y thing to reappear on a wild carrot (it never did).

l-r: Six Spot Burnet, Hummingbird Hawk-Moth, Dragon Fly.

So thank you Sir David, for inveigling me to waste so much time. On balance I think I prefer weeding.