Life returns

While we wait impatiently for life to return to normal, nature carries on without a care for human affairs. Dormant trees, shrubs, and plants are shaking off their winter slumbers and preparing for their blossoming and fruiting year.

In the garden new leaves and budding blossom are breaking out everywhere. Our plum was covered in pink blossom, the earliest fruit flowers to emerge, maybe we’ll get our first ever crop of plums this year! The white blossom of the pear and damson are just coming on, and the apples and crab apples have tight red buds, soon to break forth.

The two flowering currants are in full display with bees hovering around them all day. This year our common lilac is covered in buds. It is in the front hedge for about ten years and has only once ever flowered, two years ago. Last year: nothing.

Our robins, blackbirds and collared doves are pairing up and performing great courting rituals. Yesterday two wood pigeons did a full patrol of the garden, I think they are home hunting.

By the canal new life is emerging too. We saw our first baby ducklings this week, clustered tightly around the mother duck, furiously paddling in her wake. The first wave of swallows is in, we saw the advance party of two on 30 March swooping above the canal and the numbers are now growing. The swans have disappeared, they must be nest building in some secluded place. On Easter Sunday we saw the kingfisher, his russet breast as he perched on a branch and then a flash of electric blue wings as he flew fast and straight along the length of the water. Two weeks ago we spotted a turtle, its head was above the surface for air before it dived under, and we could see its small fat legs doing the breast strike. I don’t think the turtle is normally found in the canal, it must have escaped from a domestic setting, but it seemed happy and I’m sure it has access to plenty of food.

Primroses, and their cousins the cow slips, are now in profusion, sometimes mixed with violets. The furze and blackthorn bloom side by side and brighten up the dullest of days. The water lily leaves are beginning to unfurl under water, looking like large cabbages. We now await the arrival of the bad mannered cuckoo.

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The awakening

While many gardeners are working at a micro level at this time of year, sowing seeds, monitoring plantlets and pricking out seedlings, nature is working on a larger canvas, putting on a full display, brightening up our lives and gardens. Spring bulbs, flowering shrubs and emerging tender leaves all add to the beauty. Gardens and parks around the country are all aglow, the canal bank has not come into its own yet, just a few clumps of native primroses are showing on the grassy banks and the furze is beginning to shine with yellow blossom. The swans have disappeared, they will be nest building and hatching somewhere quiet and safe.

This year the week of St Patrick’s Day was so fine and mild that it was possible to plant the first early potatoes. Very often this ritual has to wait until the end of the month due to harsh conditions. Of course, we will get frosts, and maybe even severe ones, so I may have to cover the crop with fleece at some stage over the next month or six weeks. Following a gardening tip from Fionnuala Fallon in The Irish Times I sowed two potatoes in each of two large pots and placed them in the glasshouse on the first of March, here they will remain for a few weeks until it is safe to move the pots outdoors. I look forward to an early crop from these pots.

Hellebores are among the beauties of the garden at the moment. Robust herbaceous perennials, they come into bloom in late winter when they are most appreciated, and continue to flower for months. Their large spreading leaves are a bit of a nuisance, but they can be chopped back as the plants come into flower. They also self seed happily, so new plantlets need to be removed and potted up for friends or discarded as they would take over completely. They will even grow in pots if space is at a premium.

Spring bulbs and heathers are providing a welcome snack for visiting bees and butterflies. Flowering trees, cherries and magnolias, are beginning to burst into blossom.

How wonderful to have new spring life to bring us hope in this our second March under severe restrictions.

Nest building

Spring has come these last few days and it’s such a joy to see the garden reawakening; it brings hope in such dark times. Our bird population has been feeling the change for a few weeks now, even though the weather has not been kind. Very cold frosty nights, and at other times incessant rain, have characterised the year so far. Now we’re looking forward to longer days and warmer conditions.

We don’t have nest boxes in our garden, most of our birds are daily visitors who make their nests in nearby hedgerows. As we live in a country area there are plenty of suitable hedges, trees and bushes to choose from.

Last year we had three nests in the garden, and it was amazing to see the different construction methods and architectural styles. The most beautifully built was the wren’s nest which was built into a fork in the branches of the Philadelphus, this was shielded from the prevailing west wind by the wooden palisade which is less than two feet away from the plant. Its cosy interior lined with moss was reached by a very small circular opening.

The blackbird’s nest was built into the thickness of the Clematis ‘Montana Rubens’, which had not been pruned for a couple of years and had a tangled core of robust branches. Making use of locally sourced materials, it was expertly constructed with twigs and moss, but amazingly it was held together by long plastic threads pecked out of the weed suppressing fabric from under the glasshouse. We discovered this when the nest was exposed in the autumn, but earlier in the year we nearly had a tragedy. We found the female blackbird very distressed under the currant bushes by the glasshouse, she was flapping about and we thought she had a broken wing. On closer examination we found she was completely entangled in the plastic string from the weave of the fabric. We released her and I carefully cut away any loose strings to avoid further misadventure. From time to time more long strings appeared even though I kept covering over the fabric with gravel. She was obviously unpicking the thread for her nest.

The wood pigeon’s nest was high in the Laburnum, very loosely constructed with twigs. It looked free form and not very stable, but it’s still there long after serving its purpose and the little birds use it as a perching spot. This nest was not a success even though the female pigeon spent long days and weeks in it. No brood emerged and eventually it was abandoned.

The courting season has begun so I look forward to seeing if any bird chooses to build in our space this year.

Seed blitz

Last year, 2020, I was caught out badly at the beginning of the year. Usually I purchase new seed for vegetables and flowers in the spring, February or March, and combine the new purchases with some left-over seeds. Some seeds need to be fresh every year, but others will germinate happily even beyond their ‘best by’ dates. My last visit to the garden centre was in early March when I stocked up a little, intending to get more later. Then, supply ceased suddenly with the pandemic. Online seed companies and suppliers were overwhelmed and ran out of many varieties. So, the year’s crops were grown largely using my old seed. Even a few courgettes, which need fresh seed, were coaxed from the previous year’s seed.

This year, with the twin problems of pandemic lockdowns and Brexit, I organised early. A thorough audit of seed in November resulted in the elimination of anything more than two years old. A timely visit to Johnstown Garden Centre as soon as one lockdown was eased in early December, allowed me to stock up from their wonderful array of new seed, which must have been brought in earlier than usual.

Seed potatoes, however, were going to be a major problem. Most of our seed potatoes are imported from Scotland, where varieties are suitable for our climate and conditions. This supply chain is now cut. Luckily, Mr Middleton’s online store had stocked up before the end of the year, so they were able to supply customers this year, but next year could be a real headache.

The potatoes are now chitting in the bedroom, as usual, and I hope to sow my first tomato seeds this week. I have some old tomato seeds which I will try first, as they tend to come on no matter how ancient. I will keep my fresh seed for another couple of weeks.

End of season blues

While I love autumn colours, the profusion of berries, and the crystal clear days of cold sunshine, I always feel dejected to see the end of summer annuals and the collapse of the summer vegetables. From early spring it’s all about growth, planting seeds, watching them grow, filling vegetable beds, rousting out last year’s pots and containers for new planting. The season always seems short and before you know it peas are all eaten, soft fruit is all picked and eaten or frozen, sweet peas and cosmos have gone over, courgettes have succumbed to the early frosts, apples are picked and stored, and the last of the tomato plants have just a few green fruits left.

I do not mind the tucking in for winter in itself, the work is quite satisfying. As I empty out the pots that contained annuals I recycle the used compost as a mulch under shrubs and fruit trees. There may not be much goodness left in it, but it gives a depth of soil and when combined with garden compost it improves the soil and makes for healthy plants. Vine weevils love to overwinter in pots of compost, so emptying them out into the harsh conditions of a winter night is an effective way to get rid of them. Our robin, Charleen, supervises all this work and grabs whatever pickings take his fancy.

The outdoor tomatoes have long been picked and the plants removed. The tomato fruits will ripen indoors and when we have a glut I cook them with onions and garlic and freeze them, they can be used in very many dishes over the winter. When the indoor tomatoes are finished it is time to wash out the glasshouse and prepare it for winter. This year a little coal tit got himself trapped in the glasshouse, chasing small insects no doubt, and he had to be rescued by human hands. Some plants book their places indoors, some will survive in the greenhouse, but others need the kitchen and other windowsills. This year I have sowed seed of sweet peas and marigolds for next year, they are on the top shelf of the glasshouse. I have sowed seeds of radish too, but I am not sure if they will grow in the winter season.

Strawberry plants have been trimmed back, all withered leaves removed and new runners potted on. Chard and purple sprouting broccoli have taken their places in the vegetable bed, but the empty sections of the beds will be mulched with garden compost and covered with cardboard, which will break down over winter and become part of the mix for next year. I choose my cardboard carefully, parcels ordered online during covid restrictions provide some good pickings, I need softish cardboard, not glazed and coloured, with all sellotape removed. A layer of used compost on top will help it to break down and will stop it blowing away.

This is a time of major pruning jobs when the weather allows. We have some large shrubs which need to be pruned each year in order to fit in our confined space. This year I had to cut back the clematis ‘Montana rubens’ as it has swamped its pyracantha neighbour, and has made its support lean dangerously. As we cut away the tangle of growth the disused balckbird’s nest is revealed. Their brood is reared and they rebuild each year, so no harm is done. The sambucus nigra ‘black lace’, is cut back every year, in many ways this is a pity but it is far too large for the space. It does ensure lovely new growth every year, but this is soft and can be damaged in spring and summer winds. Roses and buddleia also need to be cut back. All this has necessitated several trips to the green waste section of the recycling centre. We compost everything we can, but large, tough prunings will not break down for years. The fuchsias and hydrangeas will not be pruned back until the spring.

There are some compensations, spring bulbs are beginning to peep above ground, heathers are starting into bloom, and the sarcococca has its first fragrant blossoms. It is time to sit comfortably indoors and make plans for next spring, perusing the seed catalogues, and trying not to get too carried away with all the delights to be found in them.

Lovely Hydrangeas

Not so long ago hydrangeas were considered most unfashionable and were evicted from many gardens. I cannot see how gardeners followed this trend and were not incensed at this shabby treatment of a beautiful addition to a garden. A mature plant can take up a good bit of space, but it really earns its place in the garden. Stunning flowers in a variety of colours, good as cut flowers, lovely faded blossoms over winter, nice autumn leaf colour and no fuss about soil or climate.

I love hydrangeas, but I worried about the allocation of so much space to growing them. Our friend in Cork has a huge variety, predominantly blue, growing happily in the wet near-tropical conditions of the county. He has been offering me cuttings for years and I have always refused.

My mother had two beautiful blue specimens, one mophead and one lacecap, their names lost in the mists of time; both were a couple of metres in diameter. I got cuttings of both when we moved to Kildare and grew them on in pots, not the most ideal conditions for them, but they are tolerant. In spite of my best efforts both are resolutely pink in our garden on the esker ridge. After years of giving them ericaceous compost, rainwater and even burying rusty nails in the pots, the insipid pinky-blue colour made me give up. They are now vibrant pink, and very happy, both in outsized pots, and another one from a cutting in the ground.

A few years ago I added a hydrangea paniculata “Vanille fraise” to the front border. The lovely large cone shaped flowers start out pure white, then edge to pale pink, and finally fade to a deep strawberry pink, and so living up to their name.

Last summer, on a visit to Cork, our friend’s hydrangeas were so beautiful, that I thought of a plan to have a row of them in large pots along the wall separating the back garden from the front, replacing pots of lavender, potentilla and fuchsia. So I gratefully accepted a handful of cuttings. He gave us hydrangea macrophylla “Lilacina” and hydrangea serrata “Grayswood” and “Preziosa”. They rooted over winter in my new glasshouse and I planted them up in pots for the summer. I will plant them on into larger pots for next year and put my plan into action. They will never be as happy as in the ground, but I think they will cope very well. On a brief visit before the second lockdown this year he gave us a growing plant of hydrangea serrata “Miranda”, a small variety that I can grow in the soil.

For winter reading I’ve set aside Glyn Church’s Complete Hydrangeas which I will enjoy over the long dark days and I look forward to a beautiful display of hydrangeas into the future. It’s a work in progress!

Sleeping beauty

When our griselinia hedge died in the severe winter of 2010 we planted a hardy native and naturalised flowering hedge made up of holly, hawthorn, forsythia, flowering currant, berberis, rosa rugosa, two fuchsias, staghorn sumac, euonymus alatus, pyracantha and roses, Virginia creeper along the low wall, with two lilacs to give it height. We were very fond of the griselinia, its bright cheerful light green evergreen presence gave us some privacy and shielded our front area from football damage. However, its loss allowed a whole new vision for the front, a wildlife friendly space that looks good all year round.

We had differential growth for the first few years as the new plants became established. The flowering currant was the first to find its feet, blooming happily from its first year. The forsythia was already growing in a tub so when it was planted in the soil it shot away and has blossomed extravagantly each year since. Two hardy naturalised fuchsias, one pink (Fuchsia magellanica ‘Alba’) and the other red and purple (Fuchsia magellanica ‘Riccartonii’), remind us of our Cork homeland. The severe and prolonged frost of 2010 cut down our large red fuchsia, brought lovingly with us from Cork, transplanted to a pot in Dublin, and accompanied us to our new home in Kildare. However, the next spring saw full healthy new growth from the base and it has thrived ever since. A cutting from this venerable plant now forms part of the front hedge.

Each spring we get lovely new growth in the hedge, one part shows spring flowers, followed by summer colour along the length, then rose hips, autumn and winter berries. The two lilacs were planted to provide spikes of height along the hedge, one white and the other the common lilac. The white lilac came into flower after a couple of years, and has continued to give a lovely show every year. But the common lilac, seen growing wild in roadside hedges across the country, failed to flower year after year, while growing strongly.

Our sleeping beauty finally came to life in 2019 with a fabulous show. Now we thought we’d have a wonderful sight every year, but disappointment: no blossom whatever in 2020. Maybe it was a once-in-a-lifetime effort? It can retain its place in the hedge as it gives height and has a nice leafy presence through the spring and summer, but blossom would be so welcome!

New lock down in the garden

Here we are again, in a renewed lock down, this time a regionalised one for counties Kildare, Offaly and Laois. This is a great disappointment, I miss meeting my friends in Dublin and Johnstown Garden Centre for coffee and a catch up, and I miss travels abroad. But, I love my garden space. What a joy to have the garden to turn to at times like this, and indeed anytime. Luckily 2020 has had a warm and sunny spring and early summer season and flowering plants have seen us through the bleak days. I had not stocked up with fresh flower seeds in March when the first lockdown happened, I had only got a few packets of early vegetables, tomatoes, radish and beetroot. Next year my orders will go in early and I will get all my seed early on.

Sweet peas have been wonderful this year. I sowed seed early in deep pots and planted out the plants when they were quite large and had a good root system, the same method I use for eating peas. The seed was old but germination was good. Gardening books tell us that sweet peas do not like their roots disturbed, but I find if the plants have a deep and robust root system and if they are handled carefully they suffer no setbacks. I planted some in the vegetable bed on both ends of the line of eating peas to attract pollinators. While the same conditions were suitable for both I’m finding as the season goes on the sweet peas are swamping the eating peas, and I now need to cut out the spent plants of the eaters. Perhaps I’ll rethink this arrangement next year.

Most of my flowering plants and annuals are in pots as the garden space is small, and trees, fruit trees and bushes occupy the available ground. We have a large area of grass too, but that is needed to keep a sense of openness, and reduce the feeling of cluttered space. I got free seeds of Viburnum “Intensity” with a gardening magazine last year, so I tried them out with Viburnum bonariensis this year, and they are lovely in the shallow pots that make up my beeline next to the vegetable beds. They do not grow tall, but they have that superb intensity of colour that the name promises.

Ox-eye-daisy-+-feverfew

I sowed ox-eye daisies for the first time a couple of years ago, and now of course I have them coming up everywhere. I do not mind really, I have taken up some that grew in really unsuitable places, but I have left most to their own devices. However, I’ll need to keep an eye on them as world domination is definitely their objective. The smaller daisies and ferny foliage of feverfew can also be spotted coming up everywhere.

I love salvias but they are not hardy in our area, so they have to spend the winter in the shed or glasshouse. It is handiest to grow them in pots too for this reason. The deep purple sage contrasts beautifully with its lime green leaves. Salvia ‘hot lips’ is a nice combination of red and white flowers, it came as present from our friend in Cork, where it can survive the winters outdoors.

 

A very pretty double geranium came from a friend in County Meath. It survives outdoors in winter; it dies back and comes on again in spring. I divided it some years ago, so one part is in the raised border, and another is in a pot, which means it can combine with other pots and add its deep colour to different groups.

Our canal walks continue and have become one of the joys of the lock down. The ducks have all grown up and we have had more sightings of the kingfisher.

Ducks-Grand-Canal-August-20

Chard and beetroot wipe-out

The benign spring has resulted in a good crop of vegetables. Peas, courgettes, lettuce, potatoes, radish, tomatoes, broad and runner beans have all come on well and we have been eating fresh produce since early summer. But disaster has struck the chard and beetroots. I had fresh seed of both and the seedlings came on well in trays, I planted them out in the vegetable bed. After a couple of days I noticed that many of them were chewed down to the ribs of the leaves. I lost the whole crop. I blamed the slug or snail, the perennial foe.

Chard-second-sowing-June

The second sowing of seed in trays came on again and I planted them out in hanging baskets to avoid slugs, until they are large enough to withstand atttack. I also plant lettuce and radish in hanging baskets, not as beautiful as flowering annuals, but usually very effective. Soon too all plants were devoured back to the ribs. There was no apparent damage to lettuce or radishes.

By the third sowing I was getting seriously worried, and the year was moving on. This time when the seeds came on I transplanted them into hanging baskets or pots raised up from the ground and covered them with plastic domes. Normally I only use those as protection from frost, as they create too warm an atmosphere for summer. So far so good. Last Tuesday I removed the plastic domes in the early morning, when we returned from our walk by the canal before lunch the damage was done.

I began to have a nasty suspicion. I started to blame my beautiful collar doves, we have about five regular visitors. However, the very interesting website of Ashford allotments in England (Ashfordallotmentsorguk.weebly.com – ‘Bird damage – how to prevent it!’) has identified a new problem with sparrows targeting beetroot, which they strip down to the ground as they find the leaves a source of water and nourishment. We have an army of sparrows and I believe they are definitely the culprits. Sometimes when I go out the kitchen door a whole cloud of them rises up.

Chard

I have just sowed new seed even though it’s very late in the growing season. From now on I need to cover whatever seeds emerge and try to manage a few plants before the year is done.

 

Summer 2020 highlights

In this most extraordinary of years the garden has kept our spirits high. All the care and attention lavished on it has been more for our sakes than its. Neighbours whom we may not speak to for more than a few minutes and at a distance are turning their front gardens into paradise spaces. The beautiful long warm and sunny spring has led to bumper growth. Here are my highlights from lockdown season.

The most spectacular plants this summer have been the sunflowers. Using old seed as the garden centres were closed I sowed sunflowers ‘claret’ and ‘harlequin’ in March. They came on well on the windowsill, and as the weather was glorious from mid March onwards I put them outdoors in the sunshine. They grew strong, healthy and tall. I placed the claret plant in the vegetable raised bed and the harlequins in large tubs. We had beautiful early flowers. Wind coming at a bad time caused them some grief, but they survived. The claret is now over 3 metres tall, I had no stakes long enough to support it, so I used a 2 metre ranging rod as a temporary stake. It has become permanent as the plant soars above it. Then, strange leaves began to emerge with my salad leaves, I assumed it was a more robust lettuce until it began to look very like a young sunflower. Seven such plants came on and have turned into beautiful sunflowers, but where did they come from? Were they mixed in with the lettuce seeds, or were they in my soil? Could they have come from the sunflower seeds given to the birds? I have not grown this mystery sunflower before. I will just rejoice and enjoy them for the rest of the summer.

The prolonged spell of sunny fine weather from mid March to early June resulted in amazing blossom all over the garden. Fruit and flowers are abundant and healthy. Roses were wonderful this year, the dry conditions allowing their blossoms to be long lasting and beautiful. The red, white and black currants, gooseberries and strawberries were early and plentiful. Tomatoes are also early this year, partly as a result of being sowed early and having the shelter of the glasshouse to encourage them. I placed many of them outdoors and they are doing as well as the glasshouse ones. Watering did become a problem as the dry weather continued. By the second week in June a hosepipe ban was announced and the grass was crisp underfoot. The grass has been the big loser this summer, our front area is looking very patchy, we have raked it and sowed new seed, some has recovered but part of it is looking very sad indeed.

As our garden is far too small to have a wild section I plant wildflowers in a series of wide, low, shallow tubs to attract pollinators to the vegetable beds. This year the ox-eye daisies, cornflowers, borage and poppies created a wonderful space for bees and butterflies. They are largely gone over now, but I’m sure they have set seed for years to come.

I don’t imagine that wildlife is more prolific than usual, but living quietly and locally we have been able to observe it at close quarters over an extended period. The fine weather brought out the beautiful butterflies and plenty of bees enjoying the colourful flowers. We know of three nests within the garden this year, the blackbird’s nest is tucked into the clematis ‘montana rubens’, we found a beautiful wren’s nest built into the philadelphus, intricate and snug, and a loose and thrown-together wood pigeon nest high in the laburnum. The female wood pigeon sat patiently on that flimsy nest for about three weeks, but I think it was a failure as we saw no young birds and no trace of broken eggs and she has now abandoned it. Both wood pigeons still visit the garden every day, mainly for a drink of water. Our friendly robin Charleen, descended from our much-beloved Charlot, has his nest in our neighbour’s garden. He and his mate have had at least two broods, and we have four or five young robins at different stages of development patrolling the garden. I dread to think of the turf wars to come as they grow up and try to annex territory.