Friday, 23 April 2021

The Fairweather Gardener - A Sucker for Succulents

I've recently realised that I’m a cactus collector, well cacti and other succulents. This seems to have been my unintentional lockdown project. I spent a lot of time potting offsets and cuttings of my houseplants.

The autumn before covid 19 struck, I'd bought a small, three-tier, wooden shelving unit with attractive turned uprights, which was narrow enough to sit on the window board in my conservatory. At first I put a few small cuttings of jade plants (crassula) and a lot of baby spider plants on it. I soon discovered that on a sunny day, I could put the spider plants and one or two other rooted babies outside with a sign, “Houseplants Free to Good Homes” and they’d be re-homed within a couple of hours. 

So the shelving unit now displays some of my small to medium succulents beautifully. On the top shelf is a bears-paw (cotyledon tormentosa), a small jade plant with unusual pointed leaves, a tall, variegated jade plant (crassula ovata variegata) and a long crassula perforata in a beautiful artichoke pot, whose stems are beginning to hang down.

On the middle shelf in a red and green pot is an echinopsis cactus with several babies who need potting on. There's a second echinopsis sharing a low dish with cobweb houseleek (sempervivum) and between the two are my latest editions, four small pots whose occupants I'm not yet sure how to care for so I'm being careful. Two are types of lithops (living stones) which I know can be tricky, one is a string-of-pearls (senecio) which I'm assured is easy, and the fourth is a tiny, unidentified, globe cactus which I'm hoping is as easy as the echinopsis.

The bottom shelf houses another echinopsis, an echiveira (they come in lots of varieties, mostly look the same so I don't know which type this is!) a sad Christmas cactus which I'm nursing but may not survive (I overwatered the poor thing) and some Hawarthia in a strange Spanish pot with crude butterflies decorating it.  

In the pot to the right of the shelving are sanseveiria (snake plant), echinopsis and haworthia which have all been in one very overcrowded pot for ten years, I seriously need to free them! Beside them on a stand are another haworthia below, and above a green jade plant in a lovely red glazed pot. This is only about half of my windowsill collection of succulents and that number doesn't include two large, potted gasteria verrucosa which sit on the floor and are flowering in the sun. 

There's also Mama cactus, who was my first echinopsis and has produced all of the others. She's very fierce, lives mostly outdoors, she flowers every summer and lives in a colony with many daughters and grand-daughters. They will shortly be going out onto the patio, when I can find my thickest gardening gloves.


Ospreyitis - Part I

Monty nested at Dyfi 2011-2019
One of my favourite activities has begun again in the past couple of weeks, osprey watching! There's 
no osprey nest in Sussex and that's a fact, they're big birds and the county has a large human population, somebody would have noticed, but I'm told a few fly over on their annual migrations. Not that I've ever seen one of those, I do my osprey watching almost entirely online. 

I began in 2014 with the nest at Dyfi Osprey Project, which was one of a few raptor nests with a dedicated webcam. The resident pair, Monty and Glesni were model parents and their efforts at raising their two chicks Deri and Gwynant. The webcam had sound and I learned how loud young ospreys can be when demanding fish from their father, the female chick, Deri was deafening. I occasionally looked in on the Glaslyn webcam, but didn't follow regularly. At the same time I was also watching peregrine falcons in Worcester and a family of kestrels who nested on St Andrews Church in the same city. 

The next year I still watched the Worcester birds and saw Monty and Glesni successfully rear three chicks but I also began also watching the Glaslyn osprey nestcam with the legendary Mrs G.  The Glaslyn nestcam had no sound, but the fascination was episodes of  'Ospenders', watching the battle for the favours of Mrs G, whose mate of 10 years (known as 11/98, his ring number) had failed to return. 

Mrs G was first courted by a young Scottish osprey ringed CU2, who was named Jimmy for obvious reasons. Next to arrive was Blue 80 who was actually one of Mrs G's sons from 2012, but CU2 Jimmy saw him off, then Jimmy left too.  Mrs G laid several eggs but they probably weren't fertile. Then another young male arrived, and stayed. He was named Aran because he had no ring and he raised two chicks with Mrs G that summer.

The following year (2016, keep up!) I followed three osprey nests and gave up on the Worcester peregrines, who weren't nesting, and the Worcester kestrels whose camera had failed.  Mrs G and Aran at Glaslyn and the Rutland Manton Bay pair of Maya and 33/11 all raise three chicks apiece. Monty and Glesni at Dyfi, reared two, although the female chick, Ceri, fell while still a novice flyer and died of her injuries on the nest - drama and heartache.

By now I was totally hooked on these fantastic birds! Osprey are an ancient species of raptor who have evolved as exclusive fish-eaters over many millions of years, they aren't hawks or eagles. They are hugely successful and range over every continent except Antarctica. They were hunted to near extinction in Europe and were extinct in the UK for 50 years. They're now nesting successfully in Scotland, England and Wales.

The Fairweather Gardener - Indoors

Plants waiting to go outdoors
As a fair-weather gardener, much of my gardening takes place indoors. My parents always had a few  houseplants and dad was quite interested in cacti, the weirder the better. I’ve always liked houseplants, but for ages I seldom had much space for them where I lived. 

Our first proper home, in Stony Stratford, was a tall, period terraced house, whose south-facing windows were beautifully proportioned and elegant with original, eighteen-paned sashes and shutters, but had no window ledges suitable for houseplants. The rear of the house had small, even older windows which faced into a wide, sunless alleyway. I tried, but killed every houseplant except spider plants, aechmea (urn plants) and a rubber tree.

We eventually moved to Huddersfield and a much more conventional, if second-hand, Barratt home, with south facing windows and a wide box-window in the living room. Most houseplants thrived there even in winter and despite the single glazing, except for the rubber tree which finally succumbed after it grew too tall and I tried decapitating it. The final grandchild of my urn plant also eventually expired.

Now in East Sussex, I have a small, not very elegant south-facing conservatory, maybe 3 x 4 metres, which I’ve stacked with plants. I’m fairly certain myspider plants are descendants of the original ones, I also have several generations of crassula ovata, gasteria verrucosa, echinopsis eyrisii and howarthia. Anyone who knows their houseplants will observe this indicates I have an interest in succulents!

However I’ve also got more conventional leafy plants, including a weeping fig (ficus Benjamina) which came from IKEA in Leeds nearly 30 years ago. Then there are three different varieties of dracaena, self-perpetuating zebrina, four-year-old geraniums (zonal pelargoniums), two poinsettia and, waiting to go into the garden, thumbrgia which already have lovely orange, black-eyed flowers, Lewisia and a bright purple celosia. The larger cactus will go outdoors soon as well.

All I need is the weather to warm up a little more and I’ll become an outdoor gardener again.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

The Fair Weather Gardener - My Magnolia

Purple is the colour of my true love’s hair… actually it isn’t and that’s not even how the song goes, but purple is definitely the colour of the flowers on my magnolia. It’s looking healthier than for a while, with at least two dozen large blossoms and the green of the leaves just beginning to show. I feel purple today, maybe it’s my hair that wants to be an imperial hue.

Magnolia is the dullest of insipid paint colours, which can't decide if it's vaguely yellowish or pinkish, so it stays vague, but then no paint can ever catch the dazzling, pearlescent hues, the soft velvet texture or sweet, subtle scent of the true magnolia blossom.

Those purple flowers glow in the sunlight at the side of the garden, if it was larger I’d plant the magnolia in the ground, but there isn’t really enough space so the poor thing has now languished in a pot for ten years. Last year I refreshed the compost, although it really needs a bigger pot. And if I do put it into a bigger pot, it will be too heavy for me to move around. The whole point of having plants in pots is to be able to move them, ring the changes.

Why did I buy a magnolia which I knew perfectly well I’d never be able to plant into the ground? Because of its name, magnolia Susan! 

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Has Being a Writer Made me into a Book Snob?

 English was my best subject at school and I loved reading. From about nine years old I always asked for books for my birthday and Christmas.  I even wrote my first novel at fourteen, but I never used to call myself a writer I just made stories up. Often they were in my head, not written down and when I actually wrote, I did nothing with the story. Gradually I began to send off occasional articles to magazines etc. Going to university as a mature student gave me the ability to judge my writing and the knowledge to improve it, so I gained the confidence to call myself a writer.

As a writer I like to think I understand how to be creative using the English language, and I believe creativity is admirable. However sometimes I can be less tolerant of people who don’t seem to know what they are doing. Carelessness with sentence structure, spelling mistakes, inaccurate punctuation and uncorrected typos are not creativity and these things annoy me, although they never used to. Unfortunately there are writers who can get all of this technical and grammatical stuff correct, can get published and still can’t put a worthwhile paragraph together, let alone an interesting novel.  

I recognise that my tastes have changed over the years, I’m no longer interested in reading the authors I enjoyed in my teens. However my tastes had changed before I ‘became a writer’. I was already enjoying the intensity of Ian McEwan, the narrative drive of Ian Banks and the dreamlike beauty of Helen Dunmore long before I could define those qualities. I still enjoy their work but am now able to put a finger on why certain of their books are wonderful and others just don’t work for me.

Usually, poor writing quality puts me off reading a novel after a few pages, even if I have incentives for wanting to read it.  At the opposite end of the scale, sometimes a novel is terribly 'cleverly' written and that can also put me off, particularly if the style is un-engaging. I tend to prefer empathetic characters telling an engrossing story rather than clever-clever writing. I’m not saying experimentation with style and structure is wrong, I do it myself, but certain well-known authors can get away with an experiment gone too far. Alienating your reader is probably a poor idea even if you're writing about alienation.

I write book reviews on my blog and on Goodreads, but I don't usually review the badly written books. For a start I seldom finish them and anyway what's the point of being rude, it doesn't help the author? If they're already published, somebody likes their stuff. I do sometimes review the clever-clever books, such authors do probably deserve to be told off!

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Mullock - Word of the Day

Mullock could be a handy word when commenting on the activities of certain politicians, eg. those blithering mountebanks have made a total mullock of... (insert official title of latest politicians' balls-up)

Mullock - noun originally describing waste from gold mining activities in Australia. If you prefer non-antipodean words, try slag-heap. 

Sunday, 31 January 2021

Scarves I Have Loved

 A rectangle of cloth has a different name according to its purpose. On the floor it’s a mat, at the window a curtain, on the table a tablecloth. Rectangles of cloth for the person also have purposeful

names, if you’re  too cold you don’t want to wear a sarong, if too hot a shawl is unnecessary. 

A scarf on the other hand can serve more than one purpose. It can keep the neck warm, hide a stain or compliment an outfit. If tied around the head it can make you look like Audrey Hepburn or Paloma Faith or, if you call it a bandana, like Jimi Hendrix. 

I’ve got a lot of scarves, probably over 50 although I haven’t counted them all. A couple are knitted winter scarves which were given to me. They’re useful when it’s cold, mostly for lending to other people!  I don’t really like wearing them, reminds me of the icy trudge to school in the freezing winter of 1962. My scarf collection began when I was 18 and in college. I visited Maidstone market in my lunch hour and found stalls selling second hand and vintage clothes. I first bought two scarves, a 1930’s one, long and narrow with an art deco design and one longer and very soft, in pink. Both were silk and the soft pink one was obviously old, the silk perished quite rapidly as I wore it out. 

My favourite scarves are pashmina style, beautiful, soft, fringed scarves which drape beautifully and are just wide enough to cover the shoulders if necessary. I have eight or ten of them, one or two I bought new but most came as gifts or from charity shops. I doubt if any of them are genuine cashmere, I hope they're not, but I think one of the second-hand ones may be silk. All of them have beautiful designs and I chose them because the fabric is beautiful. I prefer vivid colours too, tasteful greys and subtle blues aren’t me, never have been. Reds, oranges, yellows, rusts and greens all feature, sometimes on the same scarf.

Some rectangular garments are very large, incorporating many yards of cloth. Togas don’t count, they were not rectangular but more semi-circular and went out of fashion with the decline of the Roman Empire. Today the longest rectangle of fabric in daily wear is the sari, that nine yards of skilfully folded, tucked and draped cloth which can make any woman look more elegant. Its origins can be traced back to the Indus Valley civilisation almost 4,000 years ago. The everyday sari was made possible by the first cultivation of cotton in that area, without which only the very wealthy could have worn many yards of expensive silk and the general fashion might never have caught on.

I had two saris, both belonged to my granny who had roots in India, though I never saw her wearing them. One was silk and rather beautiful, with intricate designs in blue and gold on a deep pinkish red ground. The other was in a lacy fabric and pale green, I didn’t like it very much, the fabric wasn’t as soft and I gave that one away. I’ve tried to wear the silk one but am too inexperienced to fold and wrap it confidently.

Another thing I have from my grandmother is a large paisley-patterned shawl in wool, with fringes at either end, it looks great and I wear it occasionally but the wool is a bit itchy. She had several of these shawls and, when I was a teenager she cut up two to make me a coat and a jacket. She’d noticed that I liked beautiful fabrics, especially Indian ones. I loved that jacket, in its paisley rainbow of colours, so much that I wore it for years, before I managed to leave it on the tube. The fabric of the coat, while still paisley is more austere, in greens and greys, I wore it when I got married and still have it to wear occasionally  but I mostly keep it in the wardrobe, with cedar rings and a cover to keep the moths away.

Now I’m the age Granny was when she made me the coat and jacket, I sometimes wear scarves to hide a few undesirable neck features, but mostly I wear them because I love their beautiful fabrics. They make me happy.