August-December, 2022: garden diary

The second half of the year 2022 has been a time of experimentation – some intentional, some forced on me by nature!

For East Anglia and parts of south-east England it was the fourth driest summer ever recorded, according to Met Office time series stats. I was keen to prevent the crops in my small vegetable plot from being attacked by pigeons and also wanted to put them into a kind of “intensive care”, in a configuration which would enable me to keep a close eye on watering, fertiliser, etc. The boxes meant I could grow as wide a variety of veg. as I’ve grown in the often much larger gardens we’ve cultivated in the past – and protect the plants from the pigeons!

Part of our veg. patch in 2012 is shown below. One thing that has occurred to me since those days a decade ago is to wonder whether it’s really necessary to grow basic staples such as carrots and parsnips. There are certainly advantages in terms of flavour and if the space is available I’d vote in the affirmative; however, having a smaller patch has persuaded me to grow some slightly less commonly grown veg., such as celeriac, Swiss chard and kale.

Part of our 2012 veg. patch

Not for one minute did I expect everything in our new garden to go according to plan; and sure enough there have been disasters as well as triumphs.

As detailed in my previous gardening piece, I grew five varieties of tomatoes in the greenhouse. I’ve been growing tomatoes, outdoors mostly but also in a greenhouse, for most of my adult life. It was a worthwhile trial, my main conclusion being that there are definite aesthetic culinary advantages in producing a variety of shapes (eg pear shapes), sizes (large and small) and colours (yellows, reds). The one disappointment was the Roma VF variety, well-placed to catch the sunshine but not too forthcoming with fruit …

I’ve put some kale in part of the patch previously occupied by the runner beans. I believe they do well in Scotland and are very nutritious (I’m not going to look it up!). They seem to be growing only slowly down here in Norfolk but maybe they’ll suddenly have a growth spurt in the Spring. I remember growing kale a long time ago and deciding that it was rather bitter, but hey ho, let’s give them another try.

I started the kale off in one of the plastic cases that I upcycled from those we purchased to transport extra items to our new home, last January. Again, I’ve described the process I used to make around a hundred holes in each box. This form of container growing is something I want to pursue. The soil in some has become rather sour, sometimes with moss! So clearly I haven’t got it right but I’ll carry on with both experiment (add grit, ash, lime?) and research to try to find a successful strategy.

The back garden was a simple rectangle of mown grass when we moved in. I spent the first half of the year constructing borders – very satisfying! This autumn we’ve selected some bulbs for the many pots we brought with us – remember when I was deciding which to bring this time last year? – as well as planting a wide variety in the borders at the front and back. More news later …

… though some are already on the move.

Ah yes, triumph and disaster … sadly, the two roses I planted in Spring never made it. I’d hoped they wouldn’t notice the shadows from fences and the enormous oak and sycamore trees at the end of the garden, having known a few roses survive in shady conditions previously; but you can’t expect miracles and, despite my best efforts with rotted farmyard manure and rose fertiliser, like all roses they were obviously sun worshippers. RIP.

But … all is not lost and I’ve added three new specimens of apricot-coloured roses into the front garden, which receives full sun. The varieties we chose were Grace, The Lady Gardener and The Lady of Shallot. I’m looking forward to examining the different habit, fragrance, bloom shape, etc. of each rose, given that they should be approximately the same colour. I purchased bare-root roses from David Austin again.

It was very soothing to watch the sheep grazing in the meadow at the back. I got out my pencil and paintbrush and started sketching. And then one day they weren’t there any more …

I’ve moved a few prime specimens into the greenhouse for protection over the winter. Getting the balance right with winter watering is never easy.

Indoors, we’ve been using the hydroponics machine to grow Pak Choi, so far, and it’s been a great success and far more interesting that I expected. It’s worked like a kind of production line, seemingly with a plant ready whenever we need one!

Why Pak Choi? Simply because it seems about the right size to grow to maturity. The 24-hour lighting module (automatic 16 hours on, 8 hours off) is adjustable upwards if necessary. But my thoughts now are turning to the idea of using the ten “bays” as a propagator to germinate and grow on a wide variety of seeds. It’s many years since I had the space to use a full size propagator but this little machine could be just what’s needed. I’ll report back in due course.

The packet of cacti seeds that I purchased when I was a student must have given me more pleasure over the years than any other. There are about eight survivors from my days in a Blackheath, south-east London flat. For many, cacti-growing is a hobby in itself and I can well understand why.

The clearing of autumn leaves from the two trees – oak and sycamore – at the end of the garden was a monumental, two-month task. I filled countless trugs with acorns (though the pigeons gobbled up a fair few): not a task a non-gardener would relish but to me it’s excellent exercise, with a strong sense of achievement at the end.

Happy New Gardening Year, everyone!

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Book review: The Noise by James Patterson and J D Barker

I feel I’m one of the few people on Planet Earth who hadn’t until now read a novel by James Patterson, this one written in tandem with J D Barker. My verdict on The Noise (published June 2022) is a split decision.

I can well see why Patterson is so successful. I was aware that he’s a commanding figure in the field of contemporary novel-writing, not just in terms of total sales – he’s sold over 400 million copies worldwide – but also when taking account of his prolific output, as he’s written over 200 novels. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I wanted to like it.

The plot of this horror thriller is meticulously structured with refreshingly short chapters, cliff-hangers too numerous to count and periods of calm interlaced with extremes of violence, constantly tempting our imaginations to stick with the narrative both for short-term rewards and for the ultimate explanation of the source of, and reason for, “the noise”. The book begins with a sudden, inexplicable event that throws the lives of two young sisters, Tennant and her younger sister Sophie, into turmoil. Living in the wilderness, they soon find themselves at the centre of an investigation into an “anomaly” which threatens to change the lives of millions nationwide.

I stuck with the novel through thick and thin, and towards the end was drawn into the suspense and the escalating drama. The ending was highly dramatic and doesn’t disappoint. The whole work is well-researched and, whilst one has to allow for a large slice of novelistic license, the explanation is plausible.

But I can’t say I was enthralled. For most of the time I was simply reading on auto-pilot, though taking note of the key events and conscious of the clever pacing and cumulative injections of high drama. If anything, there was too much action. There were too many twists and turns. I didn’t really take to the colloquial style of the descriptive passages. I became conscious of the lengths the author was going to, to maintain my attention, like seeing the strings of a puppet or noticing the actor’s eyes as he reads from the prompt board.

At its root this tale just wasn’t for me. What can I say about a book that simply wasn’t to my taste? I’m sure many, many others, especially confirmed Patterson fans, will find it an exhilarating read, a thrilling page-turner. And I might well leaf through some of his other novels if I come across them in bookshops.

So, a very well-constructed story by a master of his art, that I didn’t get much satisfaction from. Maybe it’s a genre I have an unconscious aversion to? I’m almost as intrigued by my own reaction to it as I was by the novel itself …

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A visit to murky Cromer – and how I got it all wrong

Our brief visit to Cromer yesterday gave us an insight into what the town is really all about. It was early afternoon. There were occasional glimpses of blue sky, but the massive seafront defences did little to lighten the prevailing gloom.

Seeing a coastal resort in winter is a bit like visiting an empty theatre. There was a feeling of absence on the seafront, with louring clouds setting the backdrop, sound effects from the gently splashing waves as the big ocean slowly shuffled its way upstage towards the pebbles, the towering seafront and buildings laid out like so many tiered vantage points, and occasional yells from the gulls, perhaps practising their cries of approval for next year’s performances. But very few people.

I’ve paid a few visits to Cromer before, but never at this time of year. It’s always been teeming with people, sunbathing on the beach, strolling the front or maybe sampling the local crabs and whelks (though my own preference is for good old fish ‘n’ chips!).

If anyone’s curious about the life history of a Cromer crab, by the way, there’s a helpful poster guide on the seafront.

Yesterday, Cromer struck me as a very genuine place, albeit bereft of the multitudes of summer holidaymakers – and, seemingly, in hibernation. It’s just your classic British seaside town; so classic, indeed, that its pier is Grade II listed and it even has a lifeboat station at the far end. In hibernation … at least, that was my first impression.

Oscar Wilde certainly appreciated the place, although he did express a preference for the golf course!

Wilde wasn’t too well in the early 1890s. His doctor advised him to partake of the pure air of north Norfolk. He stayed in Cromer’s Hotel de Paris for a time, as well as numerous other Norfolk establishments, before returning to London in 1893.

As time passed, the twinkling lights of the Pavilion Theatre were switched on and seemed to be trying to tell us something …

After a bit of digging, I’ve discovered what those lights were trying to say: Cromer isn’t in hibernation at all during the winter. First, its Victorian pier, 151 metres long, is home to one of only five UK end-of-pier theatres. And it’s highly successful. Indeed, it can boast a position as “the only full season end of pier show in the world“.  The Pavilion Theatre may be on legs, but they certainly aren’t its last legs, as a visit to its website will make abundantly clear!

We’d been to The Factory Shop on the outskirts of town but had decided to head to the sea. Ah yes, the importance of going shopping! But later, on setting off for home, a second revelation: we passed through what turned out to be a bustling, thriving shopping area. Away from the seafront, Cromer is much livelier and busier than might have been expected, with an attractive mix of modern and more ‘homely’ shops. I’ve no doubt we’ll be exploring it frequently in years to come as it’s within fairly easy reach of our new home.

So Cromer isn’t all “front” – there’s a backstage area too!

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