Preparation & Performance

Spursy Bed still winning Gold

This week I learnt that plans are afoot for the 2022 Open Gardens Day in the village. I have been told the date (confidentially), but as it probably needs to go through the usual committees and organisational debates, I am not allowed to say what it is. But suffice to say, we are all excited here at the Midlife Garden to think that we might be making our debut in the biannual village event. The Open Gardens Day is an opportunity to raise money for charity, while giving villagers the chance to enjoy the gardens of their near neighbours. But we all know what it really is: it is the Village Horticultural Olympics.

With the date set for next summer I was motivated to get going on preparation for big day. Initially, I needed to take stock of the current state of the garden. Is it under control? What has grown well and what has failed?

The mid-season performance review has not been positive. Yes, visitors to the Midlife Garden have been extremely complimentary on the state of the beds but, like a British Olympian crying over gaining a bronze medal instead of a gold, I see failure all around me. The broad beans that I did not tie up properly or keep weeded; the kohl Rabi that got eaten by slugs; and the kale that has struggled under the same onslaught, until I belatedly sunk beer traps. The late and lacklustre crops of cosmos and sweet peas and the negligible numbers of sugar snap and ordinary peas. It has not been a classic year. The review reads like the inquest into British Rowing. Ok, millions of lottery funds leading to five 4th place finishes and a lack of gold medals sounds might sound more serious in comparison to the Midlife Garden – but your opinion would change if you could see how the bindweed has clogged the echinacea or saw the total failure of this year’s Rudbeckia Marmalade.

While underperforming athletes are pointing to tough lockdown training conditions, in the Midlife Garden we have had to contend with the weird weather of a cold dry April, followed by a wet and windy May and then flaming June. Plants have struggled to adapt. But ultimately, I need to take a long hard look at my systems and procedures. I need to improve my funding and support for these plants and apply my experience to plan and monitor performance.

In short: I need to be more like The Old Man. Suddenly his insistence on slavishly doing things to a strict and regimented timetable seems laudable, contrasting with my approach which at times borders on laisser-faire.

But the impending announcement of an Open Gardens Day has provided fresh impetus in my gardening. In my thirties I used to run regularly, but rarely for the sake of getting fit: I needed a goal over and above the simple essential of BEING fit. Which is why I regularly entered half marathons and even one wet and windy marathon in Dublin (finishing time: 3 hrs 43 minutes, thank you for asking). Training for an event was what kept me focused and committed. So now, in a summer in which I have been, at times, going through the motions in horticultural terms, I find I have something specific to plan for, and I need to get going.

So, biennials are frantically being sown (a month late) and more hardy annuals are being purchased for autumn planting. It seems a long way off, but time will fly, and as Auden wrote:

“We are left alone with our day, And the time is short and History to the defeated May say alas but cannot help or pardon”.

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Shed Heaven

Meteorologically, winter is over. Spring was sprung on the 1st March and we can start to ease our gardening lockdown with the first sowings of the year. I have sorted through the welter of catalogues and now sit with packets of seeds lined up, ready to sow. Unlike previous years, I have not been hasty in getting the growing started. There are no seed trays precariously balanced on windowsills, urging the seedlings to get ahead. Instead of this, I have been busy dismantling the potting shed, building a new one next to the greenhouse to create the new Seedling Centre; a sort of horticultural neonatal hub.

The construction of this new potting shed was long in the planning but surprisingly swift in execution. I spent late nights poring over online images of sheds, studying YouTube videos of fit young men screwing bits of wood together. (That’s middle age for you). I still approach DIY with the confidence of an English Test opener venturing out to bat against the Indian spinners: I know what I should be doing, but simply can’t predict what challenge each task might present until I am in the middle of the job and there is no going back.

So, I was surprised by the relative ease with which we managed to put the shed together. I say ‘we’ because, like so many things in my life, I could not have done it without Mrs B. She was there to hold up the sides while I screwed them together, all the time providing observations like “the rats will like it under there” or “I am still worried that it will get wet down the back, against the wall” (the one place this shed will not actually get wet – because of the wall against which it is being built). But we managed to get it done in a couple or three days without falling out.

I have not always kept my temper around sheds. Back at the Old House when trying to locate some sports equipment in the “PE Shed”, my patience was ebbing as I struggled to extricate bags of hockeys sticks from beneath poorly stored tennis rackets. My patience evaporated in a cloud of expletives when a large plastic dog bed, that had been precariously stored on a beam, fell squarely onto my head. My cry of pain and retaliatory kick at the wall alerted my young children, who approached with caution. But any concern for their father disappeared when they saw my foot appear through the shed wall and remain there, stuck in the fractured ship-lap while their incandescent father continued to swear. For years thereafter, the merest mention of The Curious Incident of the Dog Bed in the Shed Time would reduce my children to hysterical laughters.

So, although I have not always found sanctuary in structural shiplap, the new potting shed gives me a glimpse of heaven and I feel a new dawn breaking in the Midlife Garden.

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Feed The Birds

A lovely pair

This weekend Mrs B and I took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch a kind of informal National Census of Birds organised by the RSPB in order to produce its annual avian Domesday Book. Although the BGB has been going for over 40 years, 2021 marks the first time we have been organised enough to contribute.

The idea is simple enough: at some point between 29th and 31st January, we simply had to sit down and spend an hour staring out at the garden identifying any birds that alighted on our estate. To take part you did not actually need a BIG garden. Any size would do, and the information pack supplied pictures of typical garden birds one could expect to see. So, before setting our timer we took a look at the list – eighteen different species ranging from blackbird to wood pigeon, coal tit to collared dove and Greenfinch to Great tit. These were all birds that we see regularly in the garden – with the possible exception of collared doves. And, to be fair, we have only seen greenfinches hereabouts in the late summer, feasting on the borage seeds. But in addition to the chosen dirty dozen and a half, we knew that we were likely to see wrens, woodpeckers and wagtails which, for some reason, had not made it onto the idiots’ guide to garden birds. So we were all set for our three score minutes’ worth of Midlife Garden feathered feeding frenzy.

At this point, I need to clarify that it is, merely, a survey. It’s not a competition. There is no reward for spotting the most birds – in contrast to the sponsored birdwatch I did as a callow youth at Chew Valley Lake on the Mendips. Myself and an even more geeky school chum, had lulled potential sponsors into a false sense of security, telling them we might see ten or so species of duck on the lake, thus bumping up our price-per species sponsorship. Come the day, as well as numerous waterfowl, we included every bird we spotted on the one hour round trip there and back, notching up an absurd number of different feathered friends, to then fleece the unsuspecting donors. I reckon we probably included roadkill as a bona fide spot. But I recall it was all in a good cause.

So, no: the Big Garden Birdwatch is not a competition, and yet we were keen for our garden to show the numbers that would represent its worth to the natural world. To prepare for the day I had replenished the peanuts in the feeders and had been to the farmshop and stood for twenty minutes, risking the pandemic, agonising over which fat ball / fat bar / seed type would attract the broadest range of birds.

We laid out the feast and sat in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

It seems the birds got stage fright. As soon as the clock was running, so were they. Or flying – anywhere, except into our garden. After ten minutes, we nearly knocked over our coffee mugs when a wren emerged from the undergrowth. And when not one, but two blue tits fleetingly landed on the nuts, we felt the dam was about to break. But it didn’t. By the end we had a meagre total of seven species. We were left to ponder where were the robins? The coal tits? The STARLINGS FOR F%$KS SAKE! Like Man United’s forward line, they were here one day, AWOL the next. We had to resort to including a starling that landed on the fence as being in the garden. (It was clear on VAR: it had a tail feather over the line).

Of course, there is always the temptation to complete the survey on what could have been, rather than what was. But, like a golfer with a dodgy lie, it all relies on the honesty of the participants, and where is the satisfaction in not playing by the rules? We don’t want to be the twitching equivalent of Patrick Reid.

There is irony in the fact that, for some reason beyond rational thought, these days we associate sightings of robins with Josh. It would be no surprise if Josh was having a laugh at his parents’ expense by warding off the robins that would normally strut around the the garden with brazen confidence. He would be chuckling at our despair over the relative dirth of birds.

Of course, the next day, they were all back, like it was Camp Granada. Popping over from Dave and Yvonne’s next door, there was no sign of the performance anxiety of the previous day as they dug into the nuts, fat and seeds. Long tailed tits flocking in, robins and chaffinches everywhere, more tits than you could wave a big stick at. Today I even saw the lone grey wagtail that always brightens my day. The pictures below are proof of the abundance of Midlife Garden Birdlife, so if the RSPB report a decline in garden birds, we will know better.

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Big Butts and Turning Worms

Shorter days and longer lockdowns means more time spent on the internet, resulting in some interesting shopping results for the Midlife Garden. Anticipation of the next DPD or Hermes delivery is what is getting us through this pandemic. Even better if purchases from the interweb can supporting our horticultural efforts, so I put together my own WWW: Water Butts, Wheelbarrow wheels and Worms..

First up, my two 700 litre water butts, which are delivered before Christmas on a very large lorry. Gary, our neighbour, is scratching his head trying to work out what they were. As I plant the installation, I realise I need a large drill bit to connect them to the downpipe. Back in the day, when I was first delivering posts as the Midlife Gardener, I would have been able to rummage in The Old Man’s workshed for the requisite part, but today I have to borrow off Gary. He is ex-navy (like TOM) and his workshop is like an F1 pit compared to mine, which looks as well ordered as a pharaoh’s tomb – after the tomb robbers have left.

Gary is happy to oblige, grateful that I have satisfied his curiosity on the nature of the large green items, but he can only find a 15mm drill piece. My instruction sheet states 17mm so I say I can probably ‘make do’ with this one (bodge is the word that hovers in my mind). Gary looks concerned: two mil is a lot he says – so I nod knowingly and agree, realising my rooky error. He finds the correct size in amongst his third full set of gleaming drill bits and I take it gratefully. I still feel like a child playing grown-up games, when it comes to DIY.

Before I can move the butts, I have to change the wheel on the wheelbarrow, which is flatter than one of Lewis Hamilton’s supersofts after full race distance. Any more F1 analogies on pit stops end there, as I employ a hack saw to remove and replace the axle. The new tyre is the hardest of “hards”: a tyre that the website assured me was puncture proof, which is no surprise as it feels like it is made of iron. As I bump across the patio, I am struggling to detect the “honeycomb” structure they told me about, but at least I will not be needing any pit stops for pyracantha-induced punctures.

Remarkably, I set up the water butt with little or no problem – much to Mrs B’s surprise. No double-sawn pipes, broken tanks or major self-inflicted injury, and the little boy in me is chuffed at my apparent competence.

The third of my triad of garden purchases comes as a result of my lockdown rock and roll lifestyle, reading reviews in Gardeners World magazine. It is a wormery – which arrives complete with trays, bedding, a bag of worms, and even some food to get the little wrigglers started. A wormery seems an excellent way to recycle the food waste: they just gobble it up apparently. Though not immediately. The instructions tell me that the worms need time to settle in (perhaps they get travel sick?), and so for the first couple of weeks I am supposed to feed them the granular stuff they came with, give them shredded newspaper to ward of the cold, and check on them regularly to make sure none are making a bolt for freedom, like a bunch of ‘homing worms’.

Honestly – they’re just worms, aren’t they? But these are not your ordinary earth worms: these are TIGER worms. They will soon be munching their way through the foodwaste, producing good compost out the bottom (literally) and making more little worms. So, with my big butts, we will be recycling food and water to reduce our carbon footprint and improve our green credentials.

As Wilson Sports used to say: The Right Equipment Makes the Difference”. If they’re right we will be smashing it when spring comes around.

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Green Shoots and Chili Songs

We are past the winter solstice and the days will start to lengthen. It is a time to once again look forward, rather than dwell on the present (poor pun, but apt in the case of our reduced, lockdown Christmas).

But one of the benefits of gardening is that it draws you forward, planning and looking ahead to the sunnier times and days of plenty. Even in the cold weather there are warming sights of plants coming through with the promise of spring. Despite being deposited in the sodden clay soil, all the garlic and most of the shallots are rising out of the waterlogged ground like excalibur from the lake. The broad beans, too, are emerging and in the pots by the patio the hastily planted bulbs are doing what is expected of them.

The reduction in festive socialising seems to have led to an increase in quizzes and puzzles which might explain why some of you tried so hard to identify the Chili Peppers songs in the previous post. I am pleased to publish the answers below. I am expecting some VAR-type controversy, particularly as my most competitive brother got involved, so I look forward to the hairline debates over re-mixes, cover versions and whether it was fair to include titles and photo captions in the list of songs.

For the record, Red Hot Chili Peppers were probably Josh’s favourite band, which was my reason for the theme. When he and his mates saw them some years ago, they had initially been disappointed when ‘Soul to Squeeze’ had not been on the playlist…until the encore when the guitar intro found the 6 ft 4 inch Josh suddenly catapulting himself onto the shoulders of 5ft 8 inch Ed, where he stayed for the rest of the track. It’s an image that I held in my head as I wrote it and I am playing the track on loop as I write this.

“Where I go, I just don’t know
I got to, got to, gotta take it slow
When I find my peace of mind
I’m gonna give ya some of my good time”

Happy New Year to you all – find your peace of mind and look to the good times.

36 Red Hot Chili Peppers Songs

Post Title:

  1. One Hot Minute
  2. Soul to Squeeze


  1. Hey
  2. This is the place
  3. Desecration Smile
  4. Easily
  5. She looks to me
  6. Otherside
  7. By the Way
  8. If
  9. Storm in a teacup
  10. A minor thing
  11. Midnight
  12. Around the world
  13. Road trippin’
  14. This Velvet Glove
  15. Purple Stain.
  16. My Friends
  17. Coffee shop
  18. Dosed
  19. Right on time
  20. Turn it again
  21. Readymade
  22. Transcending
  23. Warm tape
  24. Deep kick
  25. Scar tissue
  26. Tearjerker
  27. Walkabout
  28. We believe


  1. Dark Necessities
  2. They’re Red Hot
  3. Under the Bridge
  4. Fire
  5. We Turn Red
  6. Make You Feel Better

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One Hot Minute – A Soul to Squeeze

“Hey”. It’s Mrs B. We are in the kitchen. She says to me “This is the place I was hoping to prepare dinner”. She has that Desecration Smile (whatever that is) as she looks at what is easily my best ever crop of Red Hot Chilis. She looks to me and then the otherside of the room where a potted plant with small yellow chillies sits on the windowsill. “And by the Way, if you think that plant is staying in here, think again”

The debate is no more than a storm in a teacup. I agree to move the plant, a minor thing, and promise to process the chillies, although I fear it will take till midnight. As usual, I have grown several different varieties of chilli from around the world. To view the plants in the greenhouse was to go road trippin’ through south America and beyond from the brown Machu Pichu to the jewel-like Naga Yellow Blaze. I wonder if I should wear some PPE when chopping and cooking the chillies. I look around – “perhaps this velvet glove” I muse to myself but worry the combination of the brown and red chillies will only leave a purple stain. I decide to risk working without it.

First, chilli jam. We have finished last year’s batch. I gave a lot of it as gifts to my friends and relatives. In a matter of moments the aroma in the kitchen changes from coffee shop to sour smelling distillery, as the vinegar and sugar simmer. I have dosed the sugar with pectin but fail to stir it in properly, so it creates a nasty sludge. I pay for this later when, despite being right on time with the boiling of the jam mixture it refuses to set. I turn it again but finally give in and elect to market the new produce as ‘extra thick chilli sauce’.

I still have plenty of chillies left over and decide to try out my new oven – a readymade chilli dryer. The results are spectacular, transcending even my highest hopes. Some of the chillies had seemed a little low on heat, warm tape in comparison with the fearsome fire I had expected. But when I try the dried versions they have a deep kick that could leave scar tissue on gums and tongues. I chop the Machu Pichu to make chilli flakes. The rest I decide to make into chilli powder and process the dried chillies in an old coffee grinder. Removing the lid releases a fine dust cloud that is a real tearjerker. I go walkabout on the patio till the air clears a little.

But, ultimately, I am pleased with the final products. Mrs B sets up the produce on a tray for the Insta post. We believe the results justify the efforts .


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They will not concede

October used to be my favourite month, but less so, now. This time around the allure for me of birthday treats and the half term break was overshadowed by the tragedy of last year, and twelve months one, we got through the month with a shudder, like a child swallowing a spoonful of malt tonic. The clocks went back and the nights drew in but despite the worsening weather, it has remained, for the most part, steadfastly mild. The high temperatures fooled many of the plants in the garden into thinking that they might simply go on forever. Even at the end of November annuals like the Rudbeckia Marmalade were still in flower, raging against the fake news of winter like Trump denying election results. But winter is coming – just as surely as removals lorries at the White House.

In the Green House, meanwhile, there was initially a glut of green chillis, but then, almost over night red and yellow ones have appeared, like Democrat votes in Pennsylvania and Georgia. It has been a good year for chillis and a new batch of Hot Jam is in the offing. Outside, the squash story is less positive with plenty of early growth, but not too many fruit to be had at the end of it. But, still, we will have enough for roasting when we want some hearty squash soup.

And talking of soup, Mrs B’s favourite recipe – leek and potato – is firmly on the menu, with the potatoes storing well (so far), while the leeks are the best the Midlife garden has produced in years.

By the end of November the garden can look pretty bare and cold so it is heartening to know that, despite appearances, there is still stuff there to be harvested. There is also plenty to look forward to, with garlic and shallots planted in the past month, and in the last fortnight we also got around to planting up bulbs in pots for the spring colour on the new patio. I thought I was a little late with the bulbs, but a quick check of my MLG online diary shows that it was the exact same week that I planted the bulbs last year – and they were very successful. It’s almost like I know what I am doing.

But I know better than to think that.

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The Long Days are Here

Yesterday was officially The Long Dog Friday at school. I took our new family member in to meet some of the kind benefactors who helped make his appearance possible.

Yes: Mr Long has arrived.

‘Badger’ to his friends, our silver dapple dachshund was introduced as a birthday present to Mrs B. It was on that date last year that the “Mr Long” epithet was first used in connection with Josh, when he collected his suit from his Vietnamese tailor. This year, giving Mrs B the good news on her birthday that Badger was on his way, seemed apt.

The new arrival has settled in well. It is easiest to describe the young pup by means of governmental slogans. Instead of “Hands, Face, Space” it is more “Pads, Paws, Claws”, although his major activities involve “Pee, Poo and Chew”. He has needle sharp teeth, claws like fish-hooks and an outlook on life that is best described in three more words: “Small Dog Syndrome”.

It is obvious to us that he is exceptionally intelligent. He has worked out how to get food out of his Kong toy and how to move tennis balls from baking trays to find treats. He retrieves thrown toys and is already helping in the garden, dead heading any flower that is within reach. And he is precocious: on the day he arrived he quickly learnt that water lilys do not hold the weight of even the smallest dachshund (the pond lifeguard was on hand to retrieve the sodden puppy as he rapidly sank).

Obviously his intelligence is boosted by the excellent home schooling he has been receiving, and while for much of the time he retains an adorable nature (i.e. when he is asleep) there are other times (when he is awake) when we would not mind being able to send him to boarding school, pay someone else to educate him and take the blame if it turns out he is not as bright as we first thought.

In the absence of such alternatives, he has instead been introduced to the family business, spending several fraught mornings in the bookshop testing Mrs B’s multi-tasking abilities. So far there have been no major disasters and we can already see that his reading age is definitely above average.

Badger is undoubtedly here for the long run.

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I’m a-peeling

I had a dream last night about the “Open Gardens” day in the village. This biennial event was cancelled this year due to lockdown, depriving villagers of the opportunity to take a look at each others’ gardens – outwardly congratulating the horicultural hosts while inwardly smirking at the relative paucity of their sweet peas or broad beans.

But, being a dream, it all went a little bizarre and surreal. Not only were we opening up The Midlife Garden for the first time, we were also being judged on it as well, with grades being awarded. It was all very pressurised and stressful as I worked to get the garden perfect for the day. In my dream I was reported as being “distraught”, “upset” and “devastated” when the day was cancelled but still hopeful that I might get a good grade for all the effort I had put in this far.

I was told that the Powers-that-Be in the village were still going to award grades, based on a “robust” world-beating system of assessment. So I was hopeful of getting recognition for my runner beans and french beans which were heavier and more abundant than at any time since the we moved to the single storey dwelling. The potatoes were also better than last year, with Belle de Fontenay providing excellent new spuds. Sadly the Duke of Yorks looked rather red and overly large (like their namesake) and needed too much massaging and peeling, but they formed only a small per centage of the crop.

In educational terms I had viewed peas and sugar snaps as the teachers’ pets in early summer. After them, the courgettes started to over-run the raised bed like year 8s in the lunch queue, before some of the plants were permanently excluded. The reduced class size led to better, more focused results. The Independent sector in the greenhouse (a hothouse atmosphere for high yielding plants that might not cope so well in the outside world) the tomatoes were lined up on trusses like snooker balls; the cucumbers tumesced and the chilli peppers promised to produce more hotspots than a Covid map of the USA.

The flowers in the borders were the products of excellent progressive course work – with cosmos, ammi, rudbeckia and echinacea taking over from the early season showings of the lupins, foxgloves and delphiniums. And for the first time ever the Midlife Garden had hollyhocks.

As each of these horticultural subjects showed big improvements on last year, in combination with the spectacular Spursy Bed, which formed the basis of an A* Extended Project Qualification, I was expecting good grades. Sadly, the robust system that the Village Elders decided to use had, by now, proved to be flimsy and ineffectual in the village up the road. But they decided to carry on with the marking system, nonetheless. This involved not seeing any plants, asking the gardeners for their own predictions on how they would have looked, then promptly ignoring this information and giving grades based on which part of the village the garden was in and the size of last year’s sunflowers.

It was called PPE: Previous Performance and Expectation. So, my A grade beans and potatoes were downgraded to C. The A* peas were given a B, and the hollyocks were, mistfyingly, Ungraded. When asked to explain why my tall slim hollyhocks got a U, I was told that, as I had never grown them before, the algorithm showed that I was unlikely to be able to grow any this year either.

In my dream, I found this all rather perplexing and I was angry. But then, miraculously, the village idiots realised their mistake and decided that the people who knew the most about the gardens were the gardeners themselves. So, we all just gave ourselves A*’s and gold medals. And everyone was happy, albeit a little concerned that they would never be able to convince others that their cabbages were really that good in 2020.

Fortunately, at that point, I woke up and realised that it was all just a crazy dream. Nothing like that would ever happen in the real world.

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Grow, Grow, Grow

I was as excited as any other birdwatcher when I read about the Bearded Vulture that has been spotted in the Peak District and Yorkshire. Also known as a Lammergeier, this is only the second time such a bird has been spotted in Britain this century. Which makes it almost as rare as a Cabinet Minister telling the truth. Or a Special Advisor admitting an error. It is thought that this is a juvenile Lammergeier that has simply got a bit blown off course – admittedly by a few thousand miles. The bird obviously thinks that we still live in a Europe of open borders and no distrust of foreign immigrants. Oh, the naivety of youth.

When I was a naive youth, the Lammergeier was top of my must-see list of birds on the occasions when our family French camping holidays took us to the Pyrenees. We saw lots of other eagles and vultures, but never a Lammergeier. It would be amazing to spot one, but I will not be making the trip to Yorkshire to try and see it. Even without the lockdown restrictions having been lifted (for those of us who abided by them in the first place) I will not be leaving the garden for any of length of time at the moment. Because this is the time of the year when the hard graft finally pays off. It is the time of the year when my parents would say that there was no way they could go on holiday, because the peas will need picking, then the beans, the courgettes and all the other veg that they grew on an industrial scale.

And I now understand their sentiments. The scale of my veg and flower patch is nothing to compare with theirs. Mrs B and I are not interested in the long hours of blanching and bagging veg which my parents engaged in, to enable them to freeze enough greens to see them through the winter. But we currently have more peas, sugar snaps, courgettes, kale, carrots and runner beans and french beans than we could shake a big Tory Lie at. Not to mention salad leaves, cucumbers and, this week, the first tomatoes in the greenhouse.

The sighting of a rare vulture in Britain is a relief from the other depressing news (although it also brought into focus the illegal persecution of birds of prey such as the hen harrier on nearby grouse moors). Being in the garden has also provided solace for me and Mrs B. The flowers are looking particularly fine at the moment and Josh’s Spursy Border is performing far better than I had any right to expect in its first season.

All this has happened not because we made any spurious promises or deadlines, or pretended we had seeds in stock when, in fact we had not. We did not double count plants or make up random straplines like “We will get digging done” or “pick, pick, pick”. No: we just got on with it.

And now, like the Lammergeier in Yorkshire, who must have been a bit tired after its long journey over half of Europe, we will take stock and enjoy the fruits of our labour.

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