Sunday, May 25, 2014

Am I a dinosaur or a Luddite?

Sorry folks but this is just a rant! I use a computer all the time and the emphasis is on USE. I don't play with it and I'm not really interested in how it works or its  fancy specification. I want a machine that functions, preferably fast and efficiently!  A few weeks ago I decided to get a new laptop whilst in the USA. Dollars seem to buy more RAM than pounds - see I do know a few terms! Now my partner Philip, who loves tinkering with his Apple (and he's not a fruit grower!) tried to persuade me to change to a Mac. My good friend Jim also tried to persuade me.  'No way!' was my emphatic response - the learning curve is too steep  for this old dinosaur. So I went ahead and bought a nice new Toshiba laptop with a Windows 8.1 operating system and therein is the crunch!

Now before I get negative, I'd better tell you about the positive side - it has a pretty colourful front screen. Yes that's it folks, the only good thing I can think of to say about Windows 8.1, which amazingly is said to be an improvement on Windows 8.

This operating system would seem to have been designed by whizz kids trying to impress each other rather than to provide an approachable and useable interface. Instead of a simple desktop with simple menus, we have a front screen that looks more like a kids board game and menus that creep in from the sides and disappear again as soon as you try to grab them. For some bizarre reason called a charms bar! So many simple operations have become complex or are lost in a bewildering array of gaudy screens. For starters, the restart and shut down button is hidden. Then it takes a massive search to find the recycle bin and when you've located it you have to then go to Help to find out how to keep it accessible. Now call me a Luddite if you wish but when something goes wrong and you realise you've just deleted your  Last Will and Testament which has taken hours to prepare,  where do you want to go fast to retrieve it - yes the recycle bin!

Along with the new computer, I purchased Office 2013, and yes you guessed it, Microsoft have redesigned this too and its a complete maze to find some of the basic functions. For example, changing the font size or line spacing, rather than being immediately available, is hidden deep within the menus. Then there are all these obscure places where files might be saved, Onedrive, iCloud and Cloudcuckoo land!  I put my documents in a document folder and back up. Do these guys have any idea how ordinary people use their programs? One redeeming answer and no thanks to Microsoft, is a a little program by  Addintools which puts back the classic view for all the Office applications. It seems to work perfectly!

I also use my computer a lot for storing and manipulating my photos. In the past, I would put my SD card from the camera into the computer and a little box would invite me to title the pictures, let me decide where to store them and ask if I wanted to delete after importing - simple! As you guess Windows 8.1 doesn't do this but brings up a flashy screen with all my pictures, including those I took last year and only lets me select which to import. I then have to find where it has hidden them, rename the folder, rename all the pictures and move them to where I want them! It also doesn't automatically correct the orientation of portrait pictures. Progress? I did find that by using a cable instead of the card, you could get to the original screen but this 'wonderful' new computer doesn't recognise one of my older cameras! And don't start me on the latest version of Photoshop Elements!

Then of course there are the Apps, as I should be calling programs these days. With my transatlantic lifestyle, I make a lot of use of both Skype and Viber and there are new versions of these particularly for Windows 8 BUT they are quite frankly useless. Instead of being a simple small floating box, enabling me to do other work, they now fill the entire screen! Sorry Philip but I don't need you widescreen! The sleek minimalist look is no doubt designed to look sexy but where  are the options and preferences? I've tried clicking, swiping and all the annoying little tricks that are meant to work on this infuriating machine but they remain inaccessible, so the Apps are virtually useless.

Then there was the printer - a new Epson just a year ago. After a long search and a few abortive attempts, I finally managed to find a driver that allowed the printer to talk to the new computer. Hooray! So I tried the scanner and as you may have guessed, it wouldn't work. My approach to Epson was met with a blunt response that there was no new scanner driver and they had no intention of developing one.  Fortunately I found a way round by using Elements to import from the scanner. At least I don't have to buy a new printer - no thanks to either Microsoft or Epson.

As you can imagine, I have had to search for help numerous times over the last few weeks in setting up this machine and found that every time I tried to access Help in Office, I got a series of annoying pop-ups and blank screens that kept proliferating. In desperation I asked a knowledgeable neighbour who kindly came to my assistance. After much tinkering, to my astonishment, he found that I had been infected by two viruses. So much for the new virus protection I had installed.

And before I finish this and go for a cold shower, I must admit that I was not totally on my own. Whilst in the USA my ever patient (?) partner Philip did sort a lot of the initial problems for me but of course when I returned to the UK, setting it up with different peripherals here was a whole new challenge.   So the moral of the story is that maybe I should have listened to Philip and Jim and changed to a Mac! There again, why did I ever sell my trusty Imperial typewriter?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Gardening on Home Turf?

I've been back in the UK a week now so its time to tell you how my little garden here in the UK has survived. The title of this blog entry is rather silly really as there's no turf in my garden here and I'm also not sure where home is! Bearing in mind that I am now spending more time in the USA than the UK and that my partner Philip and heart is really in the USA, that is really becoming home!

Back garden from the patio doors - yes its small!

Close up of the lowest terrace on the bank

Anyway I left my garden here last September, after a basic tidy and clearing out all the summer annuals. I did have a good local plantsman/landscaper come and do a November tidy up - leaves and dead stalks and so on, so when I arrived back, the garden actually looked quite splendid! Some bits of pruning got missed, like the Vitis coignetiae, so I'll let that ramble for a another year and see if it becomes too badly behaved. The front garden was replanted over the last couple of years and is almost entirely full with permanent planting, so looked quite settled and amazingly colourful. 
Front garden
Nice group - Tetrapanax, Leycesteria 'Golden Lanterns' and a Euphorbia whose name I forget.

Love this group of mainly foliage

My Acanthus 'Hollard's Gold was in the wrong place and almost indistinguishable from the Fatsia 'Annabelle' behind it, so I chopped off much of the lush foliage and moved it to the back garden next to a dark purple Phormium. It seems to be surviving. Some self-seeded Euphorbias are in just the right places and look splendid at the moment. I can't resist reminding Philip that he once looked at them in full bloom and said 'they'll be interesting when they flower'! Well they are bracts, so maybe we'll forgive him!
Acanthus 'Hollard's Gold' at least the slugs appreciated my later arrival this year!
Euphorbia - probably a characias seedling

Erysimum 'Apricot Twist' - flowered endlessly last summer and back for an encore

Calycanthus - much appreciated and settling in well

Impatiens niamensis - survived the winter but wilting already in the early summer sun

Schizophragma hydrangeoides 'Moonlight' - doing well and only two years old.

Phormiums in pots - survived the winter and also lack of water these last few weeks.

The back garden looks a bit more sparse, as I've tended to fill parts of it with summer exotics in the past. I think that finally I must fill the remaining gaps with permanent planting as I shall be spending less time here in future years. My shady white (and red) border has filled out quite nicely and I will get some red lilies and a few seasonal items to add the red highlights again. 
The white and red border

I am finding Clianthus puniceus rather unwieldy. Although it flowers freely, all the bloom tends to be at the ends of the shoots, meaning that the base of the plant is quite bare and ugly. I will prune after flowering and also plant something in front to hide its 'bare bones'. I think I will finally abandon my plant of Fascicularia, the hardy bromelliad. Its been in for years and never flowered. I think it may be F. pitcairnifolia rather than the free-er flowering F. bicolor.  

Clianthus puniceus
Fascicularia - vaguely architectural but I'm bored with it!
Hosta 'Fire Island' from plugs last year - need a permanent home

Schefflera taiwaniana - survived and producing some great new growth

Abutilon - seedling from 'Tenant's White' - survived and thriving

I like this group - good bold colours

These two have been together for years - Heuchera 'Blackberry Jam' and Hakonochloa 'Allgold'

I also decided to get rid of my Kalapanax septemlobus which has grown from a tiny seedling to a loutish youth of a tree and had every intention of stealing all my sunshine. This was also rather a monster with vicious thorns. Anyway, armed with stout leather gloves I removed all its top growth and filled the garden waste bin without a simple scratch. However I seem to be allergic to it as both arms have developed a rash of vivid red but thankfully painless spots! It must have been my day for the drastic pruning as I also finally decided to remove one of the main branches of my Cercis 'Forest Pansy' back to a short stump. The remaining half of the tree looks amazing balanced. If I am lucky and the stump regenerates I may well cut the other half next year and bring this lovely plant back down to shrub dimensions. Anyway - a few gaps so just maybe I'll visit a garden centre or two!

Friday, May 16, 2014

An Arty farewell

After a very lovely long winter in Palm Springs, I must reluctantly return to the UK, although I hope this year it's early summer rather than winter when I arrive! Last year's return was in February and I was greeted by late snow, which annoyingly lingered! A lot has happened here this winter and spring, mostly good! I have finally got my Green Card which gives me official status as a resident and spouse of my partner Philip, so I no longer have to disappear in exile at the end of a six month period. I can return to the USA as soon as I want and stay as long as I need. 
Me on the left, Philip on the right

This year I have become quite the amateur artist, taking part in weekly classes and painting with my friend Jim.  I have become a member of the Desert Art Center and the Coachella Valley Watercolor Society. It has been exciting to sell paintings and receive some awards - all very encouraging. Just yesterday, I signed a contract with a new local gallery who will be showing six of my paintings when they open in a few weeks. Pity I won't be here to drink the champagne on opening night!

I messed this up with a dark background but it was nice at this stage!
My latest

Quick and loose!
Entered for painter of the Year Competition last week but the Juror didn't like it and severely criticised - ya boo sucks to her  - I sold it anyway!

Sold this one!

This one got an 'Honorable Mention' in the Annual Show - sold it!
Second Prize - Painter of the month competition - Philip's favourite - can't sell!

I am not as yet sure what I can become involved with in the UK. Last year I entered the Patchings Art Competition, was accepted and sold my first painting. This year I have had them all rejected - I guess we have to live with failure too!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Farewell to my USA yarden

As I prepare to fly back to the UK, I am sad to be leaving my new garden/yard here just as its settling in and starting to grow. In January we did some basic  landscaping and planting - quite a simple scheme but it gives us much pleasure. We were hesitant to invest a great deal in this as we are only renters but I certainly couldn't live without plants and a garden, and Philip loves it too, even if he won't get his hands dirty! If you check back to 'Finally a Garden' you will read about the initial landscaping.   

The yard as it was before we started
After some 'shaping' at planting time in January

As it now is in late spring

Now four months later it's starting to look quite settled and compared with the earlier pictures, most plants have established. The Alyogyne has grown like crazy and flowered profusely. Strangley the yellow Mexican Bird of Paradise, Caesalpinia gillesii, has grown well and looks set to flower soon but the common orange form has sulked, so today I have replaced it with a Bougainvillea 'Flame' that I couldn't resist and moved the sulker to a gap in the front yard. My variegated bougainvilleas which were in pots and came from our previous property, suffered badly in a December frost and have been very slow to recover - no doubt also struggling to root out from the pot-bound rootballs they had made. A Grevillea 'Red Hooks' was doing well until it was snapped by the wind and had to be abandoned. Coincidentally Jim had the same plant he wanted to remove from his from yard, so we transplanted his but it currently looks a bit sad, despite hard pruning.

Tecoma stans

Leonotis leonora
Hibiscus - lost most of its leaves bur seems to be recovering

Tecoma 'Sparky' - love this!

Alyogyne huegelii
View from our patio dorrs
The wind - reminds me of trees in Cornwall!

Over recent weeks we have had persistent wind that is typical of this area at this season. I feel that whilst nothing has been killed by the wind it has slowed growth on plants like the citrus which are struggling.  So this morning I have juggled the last few infill plants, fed with a slow release fertiliser and stocked up with an emergency back-up irrigation system - some seephose and a sprinkler. Should the current system fail, a replacement needs to be in place within 24 hours or the severe mid-summer temperatures will kill everything.  Probably seems a strange problem to those of you back in the UK struggling with waterlogged soils! But gardening anywhere is usually a challenge as well as a pleasure!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Bordering on Boring

Back in December some of you may recall me writing about A Two Mile Border, a huge landscape scheme under construction here in Palm Springs. Well the first phase is now complete and whilst it is certainly an improvement on the long ribbon of grass and straggly snapdragons that it has replaced, it is sadly very disappointing. The hard landscaping is of a high quality with some random natural stone paving and plant pockets. There are rocks but nothing dramatic. Then there are some cast concrete retaining walls, beautifully crafted as curved segments but all the same. Whilst repeating a landscape element is a good principle that gives rhythm to a scheme, after a mile of repetitions every few feet, the scheme becomes tedious to say the least. It would appear that this scheme was designed for a short border and then repeated over the whole mile of this first phase. A bargain border design maybe?

Sadly the planting does little to relieve the tedium, as the palette of plants is also repeated frequently along the entire length. Now usually everything in the USA is big and plants are normally no exception. Garden centres are full of very fairly priced specimens in huge containers. But sadly, all the plants here seem to be minimum sizes, with little impact and will take several seasons to mature. The list of plants used would appear to be mainly Californian natives which is predictably, environmentally correct. But whilst Palm Springs is in the middle of the desert, this scheme leads from the airport to the city centre. It is not remote desert! If visitors want to see the desert in all its glory, they go to Joshua Tree National Park, not a city centre border even if it did cost $2 million.

In fact two of my observations are no doubt linked. Small low specification plants were probably used because these native species do not have a high demand, are not readily saleable in garden centres therefore are not produced in larger sizes. Put simply, they are not good garden or landscape plants.  

Those who oppose desert planting often say it is boring and lacks colour. When carried out in this rigid fundamentalist way, I have to agree. Its totally uninspiring. I do not see why some of the many other low water usage  but colourful landscape plants could have been used to create a wonderful, kaleidoscope welcome to visitors arriving in this desert oasis. Phase Two is yet to start and I hope that the city who are funding the second phase will be more adventurous.