The early bird …


The old saying goes: ‘The early bird catches the worm’. In gardening this does not always work out. I tend to be that early bird, but the worm very often evades me. A start early in the season can be advantageous, or it can be disastrous. It is so tempting to try to start the growing year as early as possible. Too many times I have grown impatient in January and sowed seeds that struggle to germinate on chilly window sills in low light.


This year, as usual, I sowed my tomato seeds in mid January. They did germinate, but by the end of April I’m left with enormous plants too tall for the window sills and crowding up the floor of the kitchen. They are too delicate to put outdoors in wind, rain and cold, so we trip over them for another couple of weeks. It is now the third week in May so I have put them outside, although we may yet have nights of frost. I will need to cover them with fleece if frost is forecast. The wind is doing damage to them, knocking them over and breaking some branches, so I’m trying to prop them up against robust shrubs to afford them a bit of natural shelter. Seeds sowed a month ago are doing well and making robust plants, they will fare better when they’re placed outside, but they will be later to produce fruit.


Peas have done much better. Seed sowed indoors in January has resulted in sturdy and hardy plants which I transplanted to the vegetable raised bed in March. They are showing blossom and I am hoping for an early crop.

Last year I made the mistake of sowing courgette seed very early, They came on well and bloomed indoors. However, the drought over the summer resulted in a very disappointing crop. This year I have just sowed them indoors and I’ll hope for the best.

In past years I have sowed the seed of runner beans too early and ended up with Jack-and-the-beanstalk plants in the bedroom. Last year I sowed them outdoors in early June and this worked well, so I will follow this plan this year.



Cherry blossom time

The loveliest time of the year is cherry blossom time. The Japanese have long celebrated this magical event. Cherry blossom is generally used to describe many differing spring-flowering trees such as plum and almond, as well as magnolia and even blackthorn.

The earliest part of this season is traditionally called blackthorn time in Ireland as the hedgerows come alive with delicate white blackthorn blossom. Different varieties of Prunus cherry blossom then come into their own brightening up the whole countryside. March and April, and even into May are the optimum times to view these treasures. Different varieties have different flowering times and a succession of blossom can be enjoyed. The blossom time also varies a little depending on the weather, a mild winter following a good sunny summer, as we have had this year, brings on early blossom; and a fairly dry spring without too much wind allows the blossom to last. Our daily walks are punctuated by the beauties of other people’s gardens. Special places in the city are also worth visiting in the spring for the lovely flowering trees.


Trinity College Dublin magnolia
Heuston Station Dublin
City Quay Dublin

In our own garden the trees form the structure and all other planting can be changed and modified. However this structure is not rigid, trees form their own growth patterns. We prune them to keep them within size limits or to shape them, but they have their own personalities and grow accordingly.

Our weeping cherry tree was in situ in the front garden before we moved in, so we have never known its name. In the 13 years we have been here it has grown a lot taller and spread a lot more widely, taking up much more of the grassy front. A few years ago I extended the flower bed by about a metre to give it more space. I have been anxious to identify it and the nearest I can find is Prunus pendula rosea with single pink flowers. It dominates the front space and can be seen from the end of the street. Some years it has to contend with frost and snow, chilly winds, and torrential rain. This year the blossom is superb.


Snowdrop collections


What is it about snowdrops that inspires collectors? In many ways they are small, dainty, but fairly insignificant blossoms. Perhaps it has to do with their bravery, emerging as they do in the worst conditions of the year. Perhaps it is because they are unfussy and are willing to spread and colonise large areas, without becoming thuggish. Perhaps it is because of their bright cheerful appearance, nodding gently in the breeze. Perhaps it has to do with their delicate green or yellow markings, indicating minute differences. Perhaps it is because of their delicate honey scent which is attractive to bees.



True collectors are known as galanthophiles. From the Latin Galanthus the name of their genus. Our friend in Cork has a truly wonderful display every February, they are planted under beech trees with crocuses and winter aconites, giving way to daffodils towards the end of their season. He says he does not count as a galanthophile as he has too few different varieties, but the overall effect is stunning. True collectors are willing to spend large sums of money to acquire rare bulbs, a reminder of the tulip mania that existed in the 17th century.


Snowdrops are not native to Ireland, but they have naturalised happily and I love to see large dense carpets of them under trees or shrubs. In our small garden I am aiming to plant them under the shrub hedge in the front bed, and under trees and shrubs wherever I can fit them.

We have few varieties in our garden, our main ones are the common Galanthus nivalis, but we also have varieties elwesii, woronowii, winterhart, Straffan discovered in Straffan House, Co Kildare in the 1870s, and the lovely double flore pleno. These were bulbs purchased at the garden centre, but we have also received presents from friends, and these are unnamed, except by mention of the place where they originated or the person who originally bestowed them.


One of the loveliest displays is at Burtown House, near Athy, Co Kildare (, once the home of the botanical artist Wendy Walsh, who has made drawings of the snowdrop. Another splendid visit is to Altamont Gardens in Co Carlow (, now in state ownership and maintained by the Office of Public Works.

New life


I love spring, the lengthening days, the promise of growth and warmth. Everything is clean and new, filled with optimism, all things seem possible. If the year does not live up to its promise, at least we’ve had the wonderful spring and the anticipation.

Everywhere new growth is showing. Spring bulbs, the first tentative buds and leaves. This year the winter has been mild, with just a few sharp frosty nights. Of course the winter is not over yet, last year the heavy snow came on the last day of February and held us in its icy grip for two weeks. Already the birds are looking to mating and nesting.

Some stalwarts help us through the winter, flowering Viburnums in their many forms, the Witch Hazel which sparkles with yellow blossoms in December and January, just when we need it most. Pink and purple heathers provide food for bees who appear questing on warm days.

This year the snowdrops have been spectacular and long lasting. Many gardens in public areas or big house demesnes open during February to show off their spring bulb collections, especially snowdrops. I love to visit these gardens, but I also love the gardens of friends, who sport their own more modest collections.

The big players are now coming into bud also. I see in neighbouring gardens the early flowering trees are already showing pink and white frothy blossom. Our weeping pink flowering cherry and upright cherry Kurilensis are covered in tiny buds, these will burst through in the next week or so. The Forsythia is much maligned in elite gardening circles, but I love its mass of yellow blossom that brightens up the spring, ours is just ready to perform. So too is the flowering currant, some gardeners also despise this wonderful shrub. Just because it’s not fussy about its growing conditions and will perform in almost any situation is no reason to underestimate its worthiness. Both of these shrubs grow in our front hedge and bring real beauty to it for several weeks. They then give way to Fuchsia and roses for the summer, and form a nice backdrop to the summer beauties. The Forsythia has nice autumn colour too.

The summer vegetables are also making progress, potatoes are chitting in egg cartons on the dressing table in the bedroom. Tomato seeds, planted in late January on the window sill are now about 10 cm tall. There is a mix of seed left over from last year, Sungold my favourite for flavour, Rouge de Marmande and Tigerella. I will also plant new seed in March. Early Onward peas are planted in threes or fours in deep pots on the window sill, the plants are now about 10 cm high with the roots beginning to show at the bottom. The first two pots were planted out in the vegetable bed yesterday.


Garden visits

One of the great pleasures in life is garden visiting. I love to see what’s been grown and how a space is arranged. Visits range from informal trips to friends’ gardens to exotic gardens abroad. The very best ideas come when we view a garden through another person’s eyes.


This October we had a short break in Rome and we visited the world famous Villa d’Este in Tivoli. We took the bus from Rome and called first to the ancient Roman Villa Adriana, the sumptuous palace of the Emperor Hadrian, built between 118 and 134 AD. This is not a garden as such, but it inspired the gardens of the Italian Renaissance and it is one of the most wonderful places to see. This rustic villa on a site of 300 hectares was used for lavish entertainments and for the pleasure of the emperor himself. The use of water is one of its main distinguishing features and one that was the inspiration for great gardens down through the ages. Access to, and control of, water symbolised the wealth and power of the garden owner. Still ponds and water features reflect the trees and sky and all are inhabited by turtles, swimming lazily around. The Canopus is a beautiful expanse of water where the works of art are mirrored in the still basin.


The Villa d’Este on the edge of the town of Tivoli shows how this use of water reached its finest iteration in a Renaissance garden. Created by Ippolito d’Este II, cardinal of Ferrara and governor of Tivoli, in the 1550s, the gardens of the villa display his wealth and ambition. Fountains and water features abound and the water organ plays out its music at intervals during the day. The views across the valley from the villa are superb. This is a garden to inspire, but not really to offer ideas for a visitor’s own garden.

The final garden visit we made is more unusual, it was to the ancient Roman Villa Livia, its frescoes now to be seen in the Palazzo Massimo, part of the Museum of Rome. These adorned the walls of the Empress Livia’s country villa, they are so lifelike that they can tell us a lot about the gardens of the wealthy in ancient Rome. Fruit trees and plants can be identified as well as a multitude of garden birds.



Hawk in the rain


At this time of year, when our deciduous shrubs and trees are no more than bare shapes, it is much easier to see what our population of birds is up to. The bird feeders hang near the holly tree under the arch of the Rambling Rector rose. For a lot of the year we cannot see their comings and goings unless we round the corner at the currant bushes. But now we can see them from the kitchen window through the bare branches of the acer. This is the time for the annual Irish Garden Bird survey too, from December to February.

We have a fairly stable population of birds, sparrows and dunnocks in droves, blackbirds, thrushes, finches, wrens and goldcrests, blue tits, coal tits and great tits, jackdaws (unwelcome in large numbers), starlings, seven collar doves, two warring robins and one magpie.

One very wet morning in early December I was at the kitchen window when I spotted a sparrowhawk perched on the arm of the garden bench. He seemed very much at home, looking around and taking in the scene. He stayed very still for more than 15 minutes before flying off to the fields beyond. We kept a careful eye on him as he was a sight to behold, but also in case he made a rapid attack on our small birds. The quieter he remained the more the little birds seemed to ignore his presence, not a good way to survive! We have seen hawks in the garden before, but never so openly nor for so long.



Optimism for gardeners

Optimism may not be a personal characteristic of all gardeners, but the pursuit itself demands a certain optimism and a constant eye to the future. In autumn we look to spring and summer, planting spring bulbs or planting bare root trees and shrubs. In the depths of winter we are busily gathering seed catalogues and ordering seeds for summer flower and vegetable bounty. In spring we sow those seeds and look forward to a great summer season. In summer we sow plants for autumn colour and seeds for winter vegetables.

Now, in late autumn I am taking stock of this year’s garden to see what worked well and what changes need to be made for next year. All the photographs taken during the year are helpful in this, reminding me of successes and failures. Admittedly 2018 was an unusual year: a long hot summer and drought conditions which comes to us about once every ten years. It was a disappointing year for courgettes and peas due to the lack of rain water. However, I have sowed seed of peas in the hope of overwintering them and having an early crop next year. If the summer of 2019 is our usual mix of temperate conditions and rain they will do well again. Tomatoes crops were exceptional for most varieties, although San Marzano plants suffered from lack of water. It is now the end of October and we are still picking tomatoes in spite of some heavy frosts.


It was a mixed year for the potato crop, the growth of plants was good in the early summer and there was no chance of blight during the growing season. The potatoes themselves had great flavour but the crop was small in size and in quantity. For the first time ever I have seen a fruit, like its cousin the tomato, on a potato plant.

The spring bulbs have been planted already, I have planted more under the native hedge in the front garden. The raised bed at the back on the east side of the garden has good colour in summer when the roses and hydrangeas are in bloom, but it’s a bit dull in spring, some clumps of snowdrops, daffodils, irises and cyclamen give it colour, but I have planted dozens of bulbs here for a great show next spring.



The orange and lemon pips are growing nicely and I hope to add a touch of Mediterranean style next summer by placing one or two in terracotta pots in the sun, an idea which came from a short trip to Rome in October.