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.

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Canal life


Ever since the lockdown on 17 March the only foreign travel available to us has been the journey to the Grand Canal, 2 km from our home at the nearest point. The canal was started in the 1750s and completed in 1803, and it links the River Shannon to Dublin city at the Grand Canal Basin in Ringsend. It crosses the midlands through counties Offaly and Kildare and is navigable all the way. For most of its length it has towpaths on both sides and allows wonderful walks in all seasons.

Never before have we been so attuned to its beauty and its moods. We’ve walked by its tranquil banks very many times, but never every single day. This has given us a real insight into nature developing before our eyes. Wild flowers, birds, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies show us a whole new world.


The three most wonderful sightings have been captured only in our memories. The first was the long-held dream to spot a kingfisher. This week that dream was fulfilled when I registered the flash of electric blue near the bank where I was walking, and I watched him fly swiftly across the dark waters of the canal and into the low-lying branches of a tree on the far side. The second was the sight of a pied wagtail stepping delicately on the large leaf of a yellow water lily. Finally, we observed two cuckoos flying across the canal, north to south, the male calling as they went. We’ve been hearing the cuckoo calling across the bog almost every day since early May, and at last the thrill of seeing them for the first time ever.

Up to recently yellow was the predominant colour: the bright yellow gorse reflected in the still water, the stately yellow flag iris growing on the reedy banks, yellow water lilies beginning to unfold on the surface of the water, primroses and cowslips clinging to the sloping banks, and yellow buttercups dotting the rough grass on the edges of the path. Now the colour palette is expanding: wild orchids in white and pale lavender, blue speedwell, tall ox-eye daisies, purple thistles, pale achilleas and fluffy meadowsweet are visible, and the purple loosestrife is beginning to appear.

Everyday sights have been several families of ducklings. In April we were fascinated with the large broods of tiny fluffy mallard ducklings following the mother duck in formation, or clustered in the reeds near the bank. Each week they are growing larger and more independent. Now they are beginning to have the distinctive colourings of the male and female. A pair of swans have recently appeared with six downy cygnets. We have seen our first swallow chicks: resting on the gate of the canal lock two chicks were being fed by the adult bird.


On sunny days a host of colourful butterflies do a swirling dance in the sunshine. Bright blue and iridescent green dragonflies skim the water and whiz about the path, while large brown ones look like miniature helicopters.


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.