Scent

One thing I haven’t really paid much attention to in the past is scent. We have some flowers in our garden which are scented, like the Goumi (elaeagnus multiflora), or the roses, but they weren’t chosen for that reason. This is probably it takes quite a strong scent for me to notice, but my wife has a much better sense of smell and does notice when nearby plants make an effort to be fragrant. Late last year I decided to stock up on more strongly scented plants for her to enjoy, and they’re not all either planted or at least in pots ready to go.

Finding reliable information about scent is actually quite hard without visiting a lot of gardens at the right time of year and smelling for yourself. The quality of scents are very personal and hard to describe to someone else, which makes it hard to know whether you’ll like anything you buy or not until too late, and lists of strongly scented plants always seem to over-shoot. If you filter for scented plants on any supplier’s website you’ll be presented with hundreds of options, many of which are useless unless you actually stick your nose into the flower. This wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted plants which you can smell coming, which give bang for your buck.

Plant Choices

After much short-listing, the selected species were boiled down to the list below. I’ve indicated the claimed flowering times from the suppliers’ websites, but they may be optimistic and continuous flowering over several months may not happen.

Scented shrub flowering times

Scented shrub flowering times

I’ve mentioned the new climbing roses in a previous post. They play strongly into my plant for scent from January to December to the front, the area which gets the most foot traffic. They’re complemented with a winter flowering honeysuckle, a viburnum, and a Korean lilac. All of these have small, pale, strongly scented flowers, which suggest moth pollinators to me. This is a typical description of a moth pollinated flower:

Most ‘moth flowers’ are white or pale coloured, so that moths can see them at dusk. They are usually scented, and often the scent becomes stronger in the evening. And the flowers often have long tubes, to accommodate the moths’ long tongues and exclude other insects. If you plant these flowers you will certainly help to feed adult moths in your garden.

This makes intuitive sense – scent is more useful when other ways of attracting attention such as vision are less useful, and moths are typically nocturnal. Unfortunately it’s quite hard to find information about the typical pollinator for many species by Googling.

For the back garden coverage of the year is less even (there’s a big gap in autumn), although that’s partly compensated for by the large number of flowering and aromatic plants and herbs chosen for other reasons. To those existing plants I’ve added two more shrubs with small, pale flowers: sweet box, widely known for its scent, and a deutzia, where I’ll just have to wait and see. Finally, I have a couple of philadelphus / mock orange plants, which everyone agrees can fill entire gardens with an orange-blossom scent.

Supplier Issues

Unfortunately there were some mail order supplier issues again. I’m starting to get very nervous whenever a plant delivery is due, because it seems like something always goes wrong. At this stage, if I could get hold of everything locally I’d go for it even for a significant premium, but it just isn’t possible.

In this case, the issue was Suttons. I ordered in late November, with the website suggesting delivery within 2 – 3 weeks. I called and was told they were still awaiting stock. No updates were forthcoming. The week before Christmas, still nothing. I called and was told that they would dispatch immediately so we’d have the plants before we went away to visit relatives. Still nothing. I called again and was told the delivery had now been delayed and would definitely be in January after we got back. The next day, the plants arrived.

Don’t get me wrong. The plants are decent sized and of good quality. It’s just that there was no useful feedback at all regarding when they might arrive, and Sutton’s own staff apparently didn’t know that they’d dispatched them when I talked to them the afternoon before they arrived.

Why is running a reliable mail-order nursery and/or delivery business such an impossible thing for a customer to ask for?

We’re all Doomed!

It seems like everyone, right now, is convinced of their own doom. The pages of the Guardian are full of angry leftie types who feel betrayed by 52% of the electorate, while the pages of the red-top papers are little better and filled with angry accusations of treachery and imagined attempts to subvert the result of the Brexit vote. Bizarrely, every side feels under threat simultaneously, but in crazy times like these maybe they’re all right. When the rules of the game fall apart, no-one can be sure anymore what it takes to win, or what winning even means, even if the team captains themselves were the ones who shot the referee and are now warring for possession of the rule book. The village has to be destroyed in order to save it.

According to Google and Wikipedia, the original sense of the word doom was judgment, someone receiving what they deserved:

Old English dōm ‘statute, judgement’, of Germanic origin, from a base meaning ‘to put in place’; related to do.

And there’s certainly a lot that needs judging. The Brexits and Trumps of the world weren’t random events, they were responses to the faults that run through the way we organise the world, and the increasingly desperate papering over the cracks. Every system contains the seeds of its own destruction (as Marx supposedly said of capitalism), and when those seeds germinated there were two choices:

  1. Be honest about the problems and the drastic changes required to fix them
  2. Lie, pervert and distort all law and reason to delay burying the bloated but familiar corpse as long as possible

It doesn’t take much to see which way our illustrious leaders went.

Large societies always find it hard to fundamentally reform, because the illusion of permanence is the only way they can work. Imagine what would happen if people with pounds in their pockets didn’t believe that the pound was a stable store of value, with a stable and strong government behind it? Or if they didn’t believe that their pensions would deliver what was promised? If they didn’t act as if institutions, which are composed entirely of rules and therefore in theory more mutable than anything physical, would endure forever?

In such a world, the only thing you can trust are friends and family, but no system of 60+ million people (such as the UK itself) can be run on that basis. It’s been tried in Africa and other parts of the world where small tribes were randomly allocated to states, and the result has generally been massive corruption and a state that barely functions at best. The ability to work together with strangers, the historically bizarre cultural belief that the system itself can substitute for personal links, is what makes the advanced economies work, but that very illusion means that nothing fundamental can be fixed without bringing into question the very basis of the system, even when the system is tearing itself apart. There’s always a temptation to tweak and paper over the cracks and hope.

Let’s take our current repeat of the Great Depression as an example:

  1. SUCCESS: In the post-war period, Keynesian policies created a much more equal society with a much higher standard of living for the working class than before.
  2. FAILURE: The pursuit of full employment gave organised labour a lot of bargaining power. In the 70s when the economy hit the rocks, workers were basically unable to reach a compromise with the investment class about how to divide limited spoils. The result was the three day week and a country at war with itself.
  3. SUCCESS: Margaret Thatcher broke the UK unions and redistributed power towards the investment class. After a sharp recession, the economy started functioning again and, combined with a boost from North Sea gas and oil, things seemed to improve.
  4. FAILURE: Instead of rebalancing power between labour and investors, the pendulum swung massively too far the other way. Not only was the power of organised labour destroyed, but the government deliberately pursued policies to increase competition in low-skilled jobs by bringing cheaper labour into the EU and pushing free-trade deals that facilitated off-shoring of jobs. This caused a shortage of demand for the goods being produced – the propensity to spend at the bottom is higher than the top, and there has to be enough money spent to buy the goods being produced or the economy enters a death spiral. The lesson of Keynes was ignored by Thatcher and other followers of Friedman.
  5. SUCCESS: A liberalised financial sector (also due to Thatcher) propped up consumer demand by creating a debt bubble. Secured lending on housing, and unsecured lending via credit cards, created money to plug the spending gap (yes, banks create money, and the money multiplier model is empirically wrong). Everything seemed to be OK as long as the bubble was inflating. Since the liberalisation of finance also occurred across borders, positive feedback loops crossed borders too to reinforce the bubble.
  6. FAILURE: In parts of the system, the bubble popped. Strong connections between banks meant that instead of one national bubble popping, the entire international debt bubble went pop.
  7. SUCCESS: Banks were bailed out, and continue to be bailed out (the latest being Italy’s third biggest bank, Monte dei Paschi). At first, economies were stimulated by governments to maintain consumer demand and avoid an even bigger recession. Things seemed to stabilise.
  8. FAILURE: Government debts soared faster than for a long time, causing panic among politicians and influential people. Austerity was imposed to try to slow the growth of debt or decrease debt, causing a return of the lack of demand problem which was ‘solved’ by the debt bubble in the first place. Some parts of the world entered a death spiral (Greece).
  9. SUCCESS: Everything can be solved by better public relations! Politicians rely on animal spirits to magically solve the problem. Unemployment and inflation statistics are calculated in misleading ways to make people more optimistic. Crapification is progress: zero-hours contracts and a replacement of well paid full-time roles with minimum wage and part-time jobs is presented as a good thing. In the UK, politicians succeed in restarting debt fueled house price inflation, for a time.
  10. FAILURE: It turns out that the dogs won’t eat the dog food. Long-standing anger at economic policies at the bottom combine with anger of the previously insulated to deliver Brexit and Trump. Spain is ungovernable. Le Pen and other right wing populists rise in France, Austria, the Netherlands. The 5 Star Movement has a good chance of being the biggest party in the Italian parliament, and want to withdraw Italy from the Euro.
  11. SUCCESS: ???

Another example might be our inability to solve the environmental problems of economic growth, or to accept that growth itself, of both populations and economies, is limited in a finite world.

Note that the first failure has been returning to haunt us for decades now. We started down this road because of the difficulty of maintaining a balance between demand and supply, labour and capital. Now we have exactly the same problem, but we also have:

  1. The aftermath of the biggest debt bubble in history
  2. A zombie financial system
  3. A government that regards lying (everything is fine!) and perverting justice as a problem solving mechanism (no bankers were jailed!)
  4. The disintegration of the political centre (Brexit, Trump, …)

How much easier might it have been if the fundamental flaw in the system, the need to maintain some kind of equilibrium between supply and demand, workers and capitalists, had been comprehensively solved in the seventies? But to do that would have required an admission that this man-made system can be whatever we want it to be, that the only constraint is what we’re willing to collectively live with, and admitting that would have destroyed the system all by itself. So instead we get the sticking plasters and the gradual march towards total disintegration.

Python vs C#

I thought I’d post about something different for a change, just to prove I have interested outside of gardening. And since I was debating this topic with a colleague on Friday, it seemed like a good place to start.

Static vs Dynamic Typing

I should explain that I work in the digital department of a medium sized engineering company. My department is divided between people who are more focused on developing algorithms to solve interesting problems (‘modellers’) and people whose focus is building production IT systems (‘software engineers’). Obviously these two sides tend to favour different languages, thus the Python vs C# debate.

The debate at the time focused on whether static typing is a major plus in choosing a language or not. I personally don’t think that static types should be the deciding factor in choosing a language – not because I find it hard to use a statically typed language, but because my experience is that static types typically only really catch the easy errors early.

Of course, it’s useful to be immediately told if you’re trying to add a string to a number. But generally such errors are identified even without static checking as long as your testing is thorough enough to cover your code base properly. Where static types don’t help is with the hard to find errors, where you’re doing the algorithmically wrong thing with the right types, and those are the ones where you lose a lot of time. The only way to find those is to do thorough testing, which tends to catch your type errors in any case.

Of course, a better type system can make static typing slightly more useful by making the types of functions more descriptive of what they should do, and by ruling out at compile time more incorrect behaviour.

For example, in the past I’ve written code outside of work in Haskell, which has a very strong but powerful type system. In Haskell, the type of a function to get the length of a list is:

length :: [a] -> Int

Here, ‘a’ represents any type at all. The function can take a list of values of any type and return a number. The type signature also encodes that length does no IO or anything else non-deterministic.

Given that we know that ‘length’ is a deterministic function that does no IO, and that it knows nothing about the type of value containing in the list it takes as an input, and it returns a number, there’s a very limited number of things it could do, and a lot of things the compiler can object to up front.

Broadening the Argument

Of course, my debating partner didn’t agree with my argument. But thinking about it afterwards, that was the tip of the iceberg. Here’s some other criteria where I’d disagree with common practice:

  1. Benefits of OO (Object Orientation)
  2. Reference vs value programming

I think from our discussion that my colleague would disagree with me on OO, but agree with me on the importance of restricting shared references.

Object Orientation

Object orientation is probably the most popular programming paradigm around right now. And for good reason, since it directly encodes two human tendencies / common ways of thinking:

  1. Organising things into hierarchies
  2. Ascribing processes to entities

Now, I don’t deny that OO can be a helpful way to structure your thinking for some problems, although helpful isn’t the same as necessary. What I have a bigger problem with is what you might call the OO fundamentalism that’s taken over much of the field.

Depending on the language, you might find things like:

  • The inability for a function to just be a function without an owner

Do Cos and Sin really need to belong to a class rather than just a library of functions? Do you really need to use a Visitor pattern instead of just passing a first class function to another function? Does a commutative function like add really ‘belong’ to either of the things being added?

  • The inability to separate shared interfaces from inheritance

In some languages, interfaces as a concept don’t exist. In others, they do exist but are under-utilised in the standard library, meaning that in practice you’re often forced to build a subclass when all you really want is to implement a specific interface required by the function you want to call.

In Python, this issue is solved by duck typing. In at least one non-OO statically typed language (Haskell), it’s solved by type classes. In C# it’s inconsistently solved by interfaces.

  • WORSE: interfaces only by sub-classing, and single inheritance so classes can effectively only implement one ‘interface’ at a time

Who decided to make it so hard to specify the actual interfacing standards in a generic way?

  • The tendency for OO languages to encourage in-place mutation of values and reliance on identity rather than value in computation as the default, rather than as a limited performance enhancing measure

It’s now widely agreed that too much global state is a bad thing in programming. But the badness of global state is really just an extreme of the badness of directly mutating the same memory from many different locations. The more you do this without clear controls, the harder it is to debug the resulting program. And yet the most common programming paradigm around encourages, in almost all cases, in-place mutation and reference sharing as the default.

This annoys me so much I’m going to write a small section about it.

References vs Values

Let’s illustrate the problem with a simple Python example shall we? In python you can multiply a list by a number to get multiple copies of the same values, for example:

[1] * 3 = [1,1,1]

Now, let’s imagine we want a list of 3 lists:

[[1]] * 3 = [[1], [1], [1]]

Let’s say we take our list of lists and add something to the first list.

x = [[1]] * 3

x[0].append(2)

What do you think the value of x is now? Do you think it’s [[1,2], [1], [1]]? If you do then you’re wrong. In fact it’s [[1,2], [1,2], [1,2]], because all elements of the list refer to exactly the same object.

How dumb is this? And to make it even worse, like many OO languages Python has a largely hidden value vs reference type distinction, so the following does work as expected:

x = [1] * 3

x[0] += 1

You get the expected x = [2,1,1] as a result.

So you have a pervasive tendency for the language to promote object sharing and mutability, which together mean you have to be incredibly careful to explicitly copy things otherwise you end up corrupting the data other parts of your program are using. And unlike in C, where for the most part it’s clear what’s a pointer and what’s not, you also have an unmarked lack of consistency between types which do this and types where operations are by value.

Similar issues occur in most object orientated languages, creating brittle programs with vast amounts of hidden shared state for no obvious benefit in most cases. It would be better to have special syntax for the limited cases where shared state is important for performance, but that’s not the way most of the world went. And now we’re paying the price, since the reference model breaks completely in a massively-parallel world.

So – Python vs C#?

How do Python and C# stack up on all three criteria?

  • Typing

Both are strongly typed, but C# has static typing while Python doesn’t.

As I said, for me C#’s type system isn’t clever enough to catch most of the hard bugs, so I think it only earns a few correctness points while losing flexibility points.

No overall winner.

  • Object orientation

Both languages are mostly object orientated. Python is less insistent on your own code being OO than C#, and will happily let you write procedural or semi-functional code as long as you don’t mind the standard library being mostly composed of objects.

C# has interfaces as a separate concept, but for added inconsistency also uses sub-classes for shared interfaces. Python mostly does shared interfaces by duck typing, which is of course ultra-flexible but relies on thorough testing as the only way to check compliance to the required interface.

Since I don’t think OO is always the best way to structure a problem, I’d give the points to Python on this.

  • References vs values, aka hidden pointers galore

Both Python and C# have the same disturbing tendency to make you work hard to limit shared state, and promote bugs by choosing the dangerous option as the default.

Both languages lose here.

So in terms of a good experience writing code, I’m inclined to give Python the advantage, but to be honest there isn’t much in it. For me, other factors are much more important, such as availability of functionality required for a project, avalability of others in the team with the right skillset for ongoing maintenance, and very occasionally performance (Python is not fast, but this doesn’t matter for most projects).

Now if a good functional language like Haskell or Ocaml would just become common enough to solve the library and available personnel issue, we’d at least have the opposite extreme as an option (value over reference, less or no OO). Then maybe in another decade we could find a compromise somewhere in the middle…

Bottomless Pots

Terracotta pot

Terracotta pot

When I was growing up, my parents used to use chimney pots as planters. I’m not sure whether they just had a couple of spare or whether it was a deliberate plan, but I’ve been thinking recently what a good idea it was.

I’ve never been a big fan of pots as permanent place to grow things. They do have advantages: like raised beds, they will warm up quicker in spring, it’s often handy to have segregated areas for growing smaller or weaker plants for extra attention and coddling, and of course pots can look good as well. But on the other hand they’re always too dry or too wet, nutrients get used or leeched from the soil, and before you know it you’re spending half your time watering and feeding the potted plants while the ones in the ground just look after themselves.

So I’ve decided to take inspiration from the chimney pots. We’ve already taken an angle grinder to the bottom of one large pot, and I’ve let it be known in the family that 30 – 40cm square terracotta pots would be a welcome christmas gift. I’m going to line some of the paths with them, and the open bottoms should let worms and plant roots in and out and avoid the nutrient depletion and moisture issues.

I just wonder why everyone isn’t already selling them pre-cut…

The missing ingredient, source: Wikipedia, by Widar23

The missing ingredient, source: Wikipedia, by Widar23

SD Card Failure

About a week ago, the SD card in the raspberry pi died. I’ve spent a few hours over the weekend rebuilding the system and trying to mitigate future SD card failure by migrating all but the boot partition to an external hard-drive, but unfortunately some things still aren’t up and running and for some reason WordPress is now incredibly slow compared to past performance.

I’m hoping to resolve the issues soon and get everything back more or less to how it was. Until then, if you’re patient the old posts should now be back up, with some pictures missing.

Apples and Beetroot

Food-wise, the garden’s a bit quiet now, but I have harvested a few beetroot over the last few days. I did a late sowing in early October on the basis that I had free space in the raised beds and some old seed from magazine covers. Most didn’t grow much and are still pea sized, but a few grew big enough to be worth harvesting.

Late November beetroot

Late November beetroot

The other thing we’ve been eating are apples from the garden. Of the two more established trees we have, it was the Fiesta that yielded well this year. This was its fourth year and after a lot of thinning it produced around thirty decent sized apples.

Fiesta apples 2016

Fiesta apples 2016

I chose the Fiesta because my priorities were high yield, regular yield, good storage, and disease resistance. Fiesta scores well in those categories in theory, although its flavour is mostly just sweet in a Gala kind of way. Unfortunately it’s already developed a bit of a habit for biennial bearing despite regular thinning, which goes to show that advice from suppliers isn’t always accurate.

The other apple we’ve been eating is the Spartans. My grandparents have a tree that produces enough apples for them, us and my sister’s family, with plenty of windfall left over for the birds. And what apples they are.

Spartan apples 2016

Spartan apples 2016

If left on the tree until late October, until the skin turns a deep red, they have a lovely sweet taste, soft low-acid fresh, and hints of strawberry to my taste. I do like crumbly fleshed, low-acid apples – russets are another favourite of mine for the mild nutty flavour. If sweet apples are to your taste and flavour is your number 1 criterion, I think Spartan is a better pick than Fiesta.

I’m looking forward to seeing what the new Cockle Pippin tastes like in a few years time. Not being a common variety anymore, it’s hard to find samples or even good descriptions, and I picked it mostly for being a late, upright growing tree with fruit that stores well. It is russeted and words like ‘rich’ and ‘aromatic’ are used by Joan Morgan in her book of apples, so I’m hopeful.

Al-cat-traz

I’m not a cat person. I might have mentioned this before… the idea that you can buy and feed an animal then let it roam free without supervision through other people’s property has never made sense to me. Cats are extended liberties denied to other domesticated animals.

Dog fouling, for example, is subject to fines, unlike cat fouling, but cat poo isn’t obviously less offensive and poses its own health risks to humans (toxoplasmosis). Not good when a bed containing root vegetables is being used as a toilet. Especially not good when you have a young child in the garden and cats are by far the most common medium – large animal in the neighbourhood.

This has been an issue with the new rose beds next to our front door. Before the roses went in, after the soil was dug over, they were being used by at least one local feline on a daily basis. Even leaving aside the unpleasantness and health risks of finding a  ew gift ever morning, I also don’t want my new bare-root plants being dug up in the process. Something had to be done.

Options

There are a few things I’ve tried over the years to deter without harming the offending felines. The most common cat deterrents are:

1. Sonic devices

The high-tech solution. They emit high pitched noises that cats don’t like. I tried one years ago, and it did seem to deter cats.

The problem with these is (i) firstly that they only activate when a cat passes in front of them, meaning you need more than one to cover an area, (ii) they’re expensive, and (iii) children may be able to hear the noise and find it unpleasant too. They’re a bit like the Mosquito anti-loitering device.

On the plus side, they may be the only semi-effective solution for larger areas like raised beds where the forward / restricted activation angle isn’t so much of an issue.

2. Physical barriers

For very small areas, physical barriers or netting may be effective. The challenge here is that cats are very good at squeezing through small spaces, so if there are any gaps or  obstacles preventing a tight barrier being made then they might not be effective. They’re also good at climbing and jumping. Just sticking a few bamboo canes in the ground and tying netting to them is probably not going to be effective on its own.

3. Bad odors

Pellets and powders for deterring cats from lingering are commonly sold. These normally have a strong odor (garlic is a favourite) which cats are supposed to dislike. In my experience these aren’t very effective.

Solutions

Al-cat-traz - keeping cats out of the rose beds

Al-cat-traz – keeping cats out of the rose beds

Welcome to Al-cat-traz! Because the rose beds are relatively small, I decided that restricting movement should be enough. In order to do their business, cats need room to dig and squat, so filling the space is an effective deterrent. The plastic netting alone wouldn’t be effective, but I’ve dotted short (blunt) pea canes around in the middle so that any squatting cat will be poked in the behind. As a final deterrent I also used some of the garlic scented pellets. This is a temporary solution since once the roses are established, having a spiny shrub there should be deterrent enough.

Of course, this doesn’t solve the issue of cat poo buried in the middle of my potatoes, which will be an issue again in the Spring. The only solution there might be one of the sonic devices, since the area is too big to successfully make cat-proof with physical barriers.

Garden Styles

I’ve been thinking a lot about garden styles recently. A few months ago, during his first visit to our house in years, my uncle called our garden a ‘wildlife garden’. I remember at the time holding back from correcting him, because I wasn’t confident what label would be better.

Before we bought the house, when the garden was only a doodle on paper, the words I would have chosen were ‘forest garden’. The very first plans I drew up had fairly dense tree cover all the way to the house. The canopy was a mix of traditional fruit trees and more unconventional trees like Siberian Pea trees, Cornelian Cherry, and Devon Sorb Apples. The first gardening book to inspire me was Martin Crawford’s magnum opus, and it showed.

Then came the compromises. The first was to eliminate many of the more adventurous trees in the plan on favour of proven productive species, given our limited space.

I also made an allowance for more open space and grass close to the house, for barbeques and social use of the garden. The whole place was still a mess back then, with young trees and lots and lots of woven plastic sheeting to clear the grass and the weeds. My wife becoming pregnant right after we moved in gave impetus to this, and I moved a raised bed to expand the lawn that I was in the process of removing elsewhere.

The next compromise to that vision came with an expansion of traditional vegetable gardening. In early years I planted tomatoes and cucumbers through holes in the mypex, expecting that eventually those spaces would be shaded. But the truth is a garden that just produces dessert fruit and leafy perennials isn’t very nutritionally balanced. I’d always left open the possibility of a greenhouse, but a couple of years ago we built one with a lot of help from the family. I added another raised bed, and when one of the plum trees died at the start of this year I earmarked some of the space as a permanent home for more vegetables.

I’ve also gradually broadened how I choose what to grow. In the early days almost everything was chosen to be directly edible or fertility enhancing. Many of these were attractive, such as violets or mallows, but to earn their place they also had to be useful.

I guess the expansions so far have been:

  1. Plants with other historical uses such as soap (e.g. Soapwort) or medicine (e.g. St John’s Wort). Some of these I might not be sure about using and are there as much for interest as anything else.
  2. Plants to attract or help wildlife (e.g. Buddleja)
  3. Ornamentals

The last category is mostly filled with low-growing ornamentals useful for ground-cover / weed supression, with roses, and with very early (spring bulbs) or late (Hellebores) flowers. In the late spring and summer I don’t need more flowers. Winter is a depressing time, and a deciduous / herbaceous garden looks mostly brown otherwise. My taste in flowers still veers to the unenhanced, even now – I’m not a huge fan of artificially huge or fluffy pom-pom flowers.

So where does this leave me? The third of the garden close to the house is lawn. Probably an additional 10% – 20% is devoted to the greenhouse and my annual veg beds. The rest is covered by deep beds separated by curving pebble-lined paths and arches, and dotted with stepping stones. The placement of herbaceous plants is a bit haphazard and has been driven a lot by a combination of ‘where is there a gap?’ and a general preference for plants to be in order of ascending height except where trees or shrubs get in the way. There are 9 fruit trees and a lot of fruiting shrubs, most of them underplanted.

The best label for a garden of deep beds where the functional and ornamental are mixed together is a cottage garden, and I guess that’s what our garden is even though it’s in the centre of a large town. Perhaps there’s also a bit of wildlife garden in there, but to me wildlife gardening has to be integrated. I don’t set aside a corner and let it go back to nature.

If it is a cottage garden, then it’s a cottage garden in the old sense of the word, where much of the planting is for at least theoretical utility, not a modern cottage garden where the ornamental side has overwhelmed the functional. I actually don’t like lot of cottage garden staples like foxgloves and delphiniums since they are too garish for my taste, which is the main reason why I’m still not sure that the label is right.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:

The earliest cottage gardens were more practical than today’s, with emphasis on vegetables and herbs, fruit trees, perhaps a beehive, and even livestock. Flowers, used to fill spaces, gradually became more dominant. The traditional cottage garden was usually enclosed, perhaps with a rose-bowered gateway. Flowers common to early cottage gardens included traditional florists’ flowers such as primroses and violets, along with flowers with household use such as calendula and various herbs. Others were the richly scented old-fashioned roses that bloomed once a year, and simple flowers like daisies. In time, cottage-garden sections were added to some large estate gardens as well.

Now if only I could get the wife onboard with the idea of bee-keeping…

Preparations for Winter

It’s the time of year now where the to-do list is mostly preparations for next year. The ground needs to be prepared for bare-root plants, and seeds that need stratification need to be sown in time to get a decent winter chill.

This weekend has been a bit of all of that. Yesterday’s task was to cut holes into the vast expanse of concrete along the front and side of the house, so the climbing roses can be planted when they arrive. This wasn’t as easy as expected… it took me and my much more powertool handy father hours with a grinder, a breaker, a crowbar and a spade to cut three small holes in the very old and very hard concrete. The end result was three mostly straight edged rectangles:

Hole in the concrete drive for a rose bed

Hole in the concrete drive for a rose bed

I dug them out and mixed in new topsoil and manure today, but we’re now debating whether to put pondliner around the outside down a foot or two to stop water ingress through the solid wall. So I might have to dig it all out again in a day or two anyway.

Today was preparations for my long lost order of non-rose plants. This was supposed to arrive last Wednesday, but the supplier sent it to another customer who happened to have the same name as me. You read that right: they dispatched it without checking the address against the order details. It was then recollected from the accidental recipient on Friday and is supposed to be arriving tomorrow. This is the second winter in a row when a next day delivery has been anything but, and I’m starting to get a feeling of dread whenever something is supposed to show up.

Hopefully, the following will show up tomorrow:

1. Chaenomeles ‘Nivalis’ – I built wire supports to vertically train this. Hopefully it’ll do better than the Cido variety.

2. Chinese Toon – a tree with onion-y leaves, popular in China. I’ll keep it trimmed and bushy. The hole is dug – I hit a few Babington’s Leek bulbs on the way down.

3. Actinidia Kolomikta ‘Dr. Szymanowski’ – less vigourous, very hardy kiwi species. Another kiwi nearby isn’t doing so well so I’ve prepared a bottomless pot for this one. With this I have 5 plants, with 2 female varieties and 1 male variety.

4. Zingiber mioga – Japanese ginger. You can never have too many shade tolerant plants when you like planting trees as much as I do.

And after all that, there was a bit of seed sowing. I normally sow seeds that need stratification early and then just leave them in the greenhouse over winter, since it’s so much easier than putting seeds in the fridge and it’s basically how nature does it. The only benefit of the greenhouse is that it keeps weed seeds and birds, rodents etc. out of the seed trays.

The most interesting seed this year is Cephalotaxus Fortunei, a species which is somewhat hard to find and that supposedly produces edible fruit in very shady conditions. We’ll have to see if the seeds germinate in the spring, and if so if any fruit is ever produced.

The First Home-Grown Medlar

So my hopes in May of a decent medlar yield were dashed again. My Iranian medlar tree set quite a few fruit but most didn’t develop well and dropped off early. That’s an improvement over last year, where the flowers dropped off before the fruit stagr, but still a long way from the tens or hundreds of delicious medlars I was hoping for.

But one fruit did make it, and today it was ripe enough to eat. Medlars are described by almost everyone as an ‘acquired taste’, but I don’t understand why since I liked the first one I ever tried. They taste like apple purée with a dash of  lemon juice, and with a slightly flakey, oat-like texture and dryness mixed in there. Since they’re eaten when overripe (but not rotten) they also often have a slight winey taste to them. Since the skin is tough and there are big seeds mixed in, the only way to eat them is to suck the flesh in, swirl it around a bit, then spit the seeds out.

Based on my first trial of an Iranian medlar, the flesh was smoother, sweeter and less dry/oat-like in texture than the more common Nottingham variety. Definitely a good taste, I just hope that next year’s production is more than one ripe fruit.

Ripe medlar

Ripe medlar

Inside of an Iranian Medlar

Inside of an Iranian Medlar