Gardening leave


‘Gardening leave’: what a wonderful expression for something not usually considered very appealing. As most of us are housebound, or if we’re lucky house and garden bound, it’s great to view the minute day-to-day changes in the garden. We are often on holidays in spring, missing out on certain key developments in the garden, such as the full extent of apple blossom time, or Laburnum’s golden, but short lived, beauty. This year’s Sicily holiday bit the dust, so we are at home all day every day, except for grocery trips and walks.

New life is everywhere, in the ground and in the air, nature is not bothered about humanity’s crisis. Our walks by the nearby Grand Canal reveal families of ducklings taking to the water. The first swallows arrived in early April, and we have heard the cuckoo across the bog twice in the last week. Our robins have two fat speckled chicks running around under the front hedge and flying up into the leafy cover. Two pairs of blackbirds are busy feeding, but we haven’t seen the young yet.

We are blessed also with almost-summer weather for the last six weeks, making confinement bearable. The unfurling apple blossom, its progress noted every day, has been a joy. The vegetable beds are also coming to life, I have planted a succession of peas, Early Onward and Sugar Anne, potatoes, strawberries, lettuce and radish are coming along well. I am trying Alpine Strawberries from seed and they are coming on in the glasshouse. I sowed several varieties of tomato, Sungold, Rouge de Marmande, San Marzano and Cherry Cerise, they are now large plants and have taken up residence in the glasshouse.

We had visited the garden centre at Johnstown in early March to stock up on bird feed, compost, seeds and other necessities. However, the lockdown came unexpectedly one week later and I was not really prepared for a long-term siege. I do not have all of my new seeds in and I’ve been sowing last year’s seed. My main concern is with courgette seed, they need to be fresh every year. About three weeks ago I sowed three varieties of last year’s seed in covered pots in the glasshouse, and nothing has emerged. I have now taken special care with my last four seeds of Firenze F1, cocooning them on the window sill, and I think I can spot some delicate green movement. Normally reliable Rainbow Chard and Runner Beans have not germinated from old seeds. Online suppliers are overrun and are either sold out of certain seeds, or have a three or four week delay in delivery. I’m hoping for a relaxation of restrictions before it is too late to sow.



Learn a new language: botanical Latin

As most of us are confined to home these days it’s optimum time for gardening: spring bursting through, weather sunny and mild, spring bulbs at their most glorious, seeds peeping up, pear, plum and apple trees showing the first hints of blossom. But what will we do when the rain comes, the garden centres are closed and we cannot venture more than two kilometres from home? I suggest learning a new language. It may be a while before we can get back to Italy, France or Spain, so I think that language should be a universal one: botanical Latin.

Some people I know scoff at the use of Latin names for plants, but it’s an added pleasure to know their formal names as well as their local names. How come Latin is used? Back in the 17th and 18th centuries Latin was the language of science, this meant that scientists could communicate no matter where they lived and what language they spoke at home. So botanists in Ireland could correspond with other botanists in France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and around the continent, as well as those who shared a language in Britain and North America. Once plants began to be classified into families and named, the use of Latin removed the ambiguity of local names. My first encounter with Lantana was in Majorca, where I was told its name was Bandera de Espaňa (flag of Spain), named after its predominant colours of red and yellow, it took me a while to find out its formal name so that I could look it up. Anna Pavord has a wonderful book called The naming of names: the search for order in the world of plants (Bloomsbury, 2005) which can be saved up for cosy, dark winter evenings.

We don’t have to take a degree in Latin, we can learn a little at a time, starting with plants and trees that we love. Latin names let us see the relationships between plants that do not seem to have a connection, this can help us when growing them. Some sound like their English names, such as Tulipa or Rosa. Look at those that have ‘japonica’ or ‘sinensis’ in their names and we know that they came from Japan or China originally. If we want to learn formally a number of books can help, some published by the Royal Horticultural Society in London. More informally we can check out our favourites over time by reading their plant labels or looking them up online.

Look at the plants that are named after people, mainly plant collectors or their patrons. Tradescantia, pretty houseplants, originally wild flowers in their native Americas, are named after the 17th-century English plantsmen and collectors, John Tradescant and his son John. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Fuchsia is native to Ireland as you see it flowering freely in the hedgerows, but it is named after the 16th-century German botanist, Leonhart Fuchs, and is native to the Caribbean. In Irish its local name is deora Dé (tears of God). Bougainvillea, with its gorgeous purple, red, white or orange bracts reminding us of the most perfect foreign holidays, is named after Louis Antoine de Bougainville, the French navy admiral and explorer, who circumnavigated the earth in 1763. It was a scientific mission with the botanist, Philibert Commerçon aboard, who named the plant after his commander.

Storm troopers

Where would our gardens be without the brave warriors that show strength and colour in the coldest and most stormy times of the year? Where do they get their resilience? How they gladden the heart and allow us to dream of spring, or even summer.

My admiration goes to the spring bulbs, when in the depths of winter, no matter what the weather, they will peep above the earth and burst into wonderful blossom. Rain and wind, sometimes snow, do not deter them. At the moment snowdrops, daffodils, crocuses and iris are crowding the flower beds and pots. The small daffodils, mainly tête-à-tête, are the best survivors. When the taller daffodils come on they will not stand as well in the wind. Normally I cut very few daffodils for the house, I prefer to see them brightening up the garden, however, as soon as the tall daffodils are blown down I cut them and bring them indoors as the lovely flower heads are loved by slugs.

Wonderful performers are the Hellebores, when their old and worn leaves are removed their beautiful nodding flowers can be seen to perfection. They seed themselves happily in the flower beds, but the new plants need to be thinned out and placed elsewhere, or given to friends, to stop a complete takeover. Primroses are a delight too, we have deeply coloured ones that are very attractive, but for me the native primrose has no equal.

Lovely cyclamen produce their delicate flowers of white, pinks, and reds in the dullest of places under shrubs and in dark old corners, their pretty leaves are a joy in themselves. We are reminded of beautiful examples seen growing wild in Greece, their homeland, when we were on holiday last spring.

Heathers surpass themselves at this time of year, creating a sea of pink and providing food for bees foraging during warm spells. Red berried holly, ruscus and pyracantha also add joy to the winter garden and provide food for birds when it gets cold, by now most of the berries have been consumed by hungry blackbirds and thrushes.



St Brigid’s Day

St Brigid (or Bridget) is the patron saint of County Kildare, with her monastery near the Curragh. She is one of the three patron saints of Ireland: Patrick, Brigid and Columba. Her origins go back to pre-Christian times, she was also a Celtic goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann, associated with healers and childbirth, poets and poetic inspiration, celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and other parts of Western Europe. Her feast day, 1 February, heralds the spring and the beginning of the new growing year. Her symbol, the St Brigid’s cross, is made of locally grown rushes and it acts as an emblem to keep harm and hunger from the household.

Even though conditions in the garden may be wintery, the gradual lengthening of days and the hopeful bursting of buds and emergence of spring bulbs tells us that spring is here. Now, the impulse to start growing is very strong, and even though conditions may not favour it I’m inclined to start sowing seed. The potatoes are once again chitting in the bedroom. I have already sowed my tomato seeds, sowing first some old seed from last year, which are now showing, and sowing my new seed yesterday.

I am very grateful for the few mild days that allow me to get out and do some work in the garden, although I’m sure we will have more severe weather before St Patrick’s Day (17 March), often characterized by cold and bitter winds.


Tricky spaces

Every garden has its difficult spaces due to size, orientation, shade, wind, poor soil, or all of the above. We have many spaces that offer a real challenge.

The front of the house faces north and east, that narrow strip of garden spends most of the day in the shade of the house, it gets bitter east winds, and morning sun after frost is a further hazard (see ‘North-facing front door’). A spreading cherry tree offers more shade, and as it comes into leaf it shuts out all life-giving light. The grass here is very bad and moss is in its element. Early on I planted a row of heathers and box under the cherry, they did well but the tree began to spread farther out. I prune it every year to keep it away from the path, but it continues to extend. A few years ago I cut another one metre wide bed out of the grass, this is planted with spring bulbs and primroses, they come into flower while the cherry is still bare. The bed goes dormant when the tree is in flower and in full leaf.

A narrow strip runs along the east wall of the house, with a concrete path bordering the building and the base of the perimeter wall on the other side: a bleak and unyielding site, forming a wind tunnel. We placed two composting bins in this area sitting on a small section of earth. The council waste bins also reside here. For a while this area was abandoned, but as the garden filled up each space was needed. Large pots seemed the best solution, but what plants could endure these conditions? We tried different candidates, but none was really happy. At present we have raspberries in pots, they tolerate the site, although they would be happier elsewhere. Perennial geraniums, comfrey, and potted fuchsias also manage. Hydrangeas live at the corner of the building, out of the worst of the wind. Last year, due to lack of space elsewhere, I planted Hollyhocks, they needed to be staked due to the wind, and as the summer got wetter they hated the constant rain. They looked well and really brightened up this impossible space.


I have largely given up on the unpromising space near the oil tank at the back of the sheds, I use it for outdoor working and storage. It was an area that got waterlogged, we planted a philadelphus and it has helped to dry up the ground. We planted a bamboo in a very large pot to shade and help obscure the oil tank. The rest of the area is given over to work space and temporary arrangements of pots.

New year’s resolutions

2020 will be our 14th year in the garden, how the time has flown! The garden has developed a lot since those early days, most changes have been for the better, but there are many things that can be improved, or at least tried out. We no longer have the blank canvas we started with, so all new projects have to fit with the pre-existing layout.


The arrival of our new glasshouse in September meant the removal of half our red and white current bushes, they are over wintering in pots, but they will need a new home. That will be a priority for 2020, although I think I’ll need to wait for autumn to place them.



Our narrow front garden has been left to its own devices now for a few years. A concrete apron has space for our car, I have placed a row of pots at the back of this space near the wall. They looked well in the beginning, but now I need to rethink that arrangement.


Potted lavender, potentilla, crocosmia, and heathers are now looking leggy and drab. I got a large handful of Hydrangea cuttings from our friend in Cork during the summer. They have since rooted and are resting in the glasshouse for the winter. If they are still growing by spring I hope to place a matching line of pots containing the Hydrangeas at the wall. We do not have enough space to grow them in the ground, but other Hydrangeas are managing well in large pots, so hopefully these will too. The north facing aspect is not ideal, but Hydrangeas seem to be pretty hardy and not too fussy.


I see and read about lots of gardeners bemoaning their accumulations of unused seed packages. I also have this problem. Purchasing new seed, or getting wonderful free seeds with gardening magazines, is so tempting in the bleak days of winter and early days of spring, when hope is high and light levels are still low. Every year I try to weed out very out-of-date envelopes, although even these seeds can sometimes germinate quite well. Of the flowers and vegetables that I really want I take no chances, and buy new seed every year. But I am willing to try out old seed also, and if it comes on, all the better. This year I hope to be ruthless, and really cut out superannuated seed.

I will also try not to sow seed too early as I tend to do with tomatoes (see ‘The early bird’). However, with the new glasshouse I hope to have a permanent home for most of the tomato plants, and the kitchen need not become a nursery for two months.



2019: a year of contrasts

This has been a year of two halves, after a fairly benign winter, spring brought good growth and wonderful blossom. The first six months was the usual mix of rain and sunshine, with a hint of snow in early March. Late July brought on the rain which has rarely stopped since. The ground is sodden, fields have large lakes and are growing nasty rush-like tufts instead of succulent grass.

Maybe it was due to last year’s exceptionally dry hot summer, followed by the relatively mild winter, but spring flowering trees and shrubs made a remarkable display. Starting with the Witch hazel in late December and early January, and moving on to the fruit trees, plum, pear, damson, apple and crab apple, Forsythia, Cherry blossoms, Magnolia, Laburnum, and then on to Viburnum and Lilac. Our common Lilac, though several years old, had never bloomed until this year, it was a great source of joy to see it finally in its glory. Roses were lovely in the early part of the summer, nearly rivalling last year’s flowers.


Vegetables started well also, with an early crop of peas and broad beans, lettuce, radish, rhubarb, and garlic. This year I was late sowing my seeds of summer annuals as we went on holidays in April, so I held off sowing until I returned. Some get on with sowing themselves: aquilegia, borage, nasturtium, poppies, marigolds, but others needed human intervention. Sweet peas, Sunflowers and Cosmos were quite late coming on, and got battered with rain and wind when they should have been at their best. The summer passes so quickly and before you know it your lovely flowers are being blown over and fading and your fine vegetables are finished producing. Tomatoes came on well and produced fruit early, but by late summer they were swimming in rain water. In late September I brought many of the Cosmos plants into our new glasshouse to give them a chance to thrive for a bit longer.


This year we have had regular, sometimes daily, visits from a sparrow hawk. It’s a wonderful bird but I hate seeing it in the garden as our small birds are sitting targets for it. We moved our bird feeders from the far corner of the garden to the apple trees outside our kitchen window, here we can keep an eye on them and drive off the predator.