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.



The first frosts


According to their growing instructions certain vegetables and plants perform well until the first frosts. This year our first significant frost occurred on 23rd – 24th September. I woke up to white grass and roofs, and I knew this was the effective end of summer. From now on everything would be winding down. The runner beans, which were spectacular just a week or two ago have had a sudden demise, they suffered from the wind followed by frost and have now been cleared out. The courgettes are on their last gasp, they had a difficult season due to drought, and fruits were small and scarce. Annuals, such as sweet peas, have also had their day and are ready to be composted.


Every year plants have to claim their place indoors as space is limited. Some get the window sills and others have to make do with the shed. I keep a selection of my favourite non-hardy fuchsias in the shed, but I take cuttings and keep the new plants in the house to make sure of their survival if conditions get very cold.

This year I planted seeds of lemon and orange as an experiment. They’ve produced strong healthy plants and they are now repotted and living on the window sill. If they do well they will make nice presents, I can only keep one of each as they need to live indoors as house plants for most of the year. I had a lovely lemon tree a few years ago, purchased at the garden centre. It produced glorious blossom and lemons for two or three seasons, then it got a horrible black sooty sticky substance on its leaves. It finally succumbed in spite of all my efforts to remove the pests that were causing the problem. If I can grow my own plants I can replace any plants that I cannot save.


Berries come into their own in the garden just now and the birds are gorging themselves. Pyracantha is laden with berries and the mountain ash is glowing in the corner of the garden. Deep red and russet colours are also beginning to show along the front hedge. Soon we will be in full autumn livery.



Season of mists


I love the exuberance of the September fruit and vegetable garden. Apples, pears and damsons are ripening fast. The potato crop is finished, leaving space for other crops, mainly courgettes, radish, lettuce and a second crop of carrots. Climbing runner beans have taken on a fairy tale quality, think Jack and the beanstalk. Nasturtiums have seeded themselves through the raised beds and on the gravel path, and strawberry plants are intent on total takeover.



As September comes in the apple trees come into their own, happiest are the apples on the cordon, which give an abundant crop of good sized fruits. They are also protected from strong west winds by the wooden palisade which separates us from our neighbours. There is an excellent crop of crab apples from the Gorgeous tree, so it’s nearly time to make crab apple jelly. The pears are few again this year, about 12 fruits, but they are large and healthy looking. Yesterday’s storm Ali has knocked off about 20 apples and 6 pears, we may be able to eat the pears as they are quite large, but we will not be able to store them. Maybe it’s time for an apple tart with the still immature apples.

The plum tree has still not produced any fruit, we had a little blossom in the spring, but it did not result in fruit. The damson tree is doing well and we got a lot of fruit this year. The fig Brown Turkey had its best year yet, presumably due to the hot dry summer. We have already eaten 10 large juicy figs and there are more to come. It looks like we will never be large producers from our small trees, but the fruit is delicious and we love the spring blossom, autumn colour, and winter shape of the trees.

The potato crop is practically finished now, the potatoes were very tasty this year if not very large or plentiful. I have boiled up the very small ones and mashed them for the birds who love them. The tomatoes have been superb, apart from disliking the extreme drought, they have loved the sun and warmth.

Late summer burst

Autumn is arriving early this year after the heatwave and drought. Leaves are beginning to take on fall colours and berries are ripening. Many summer flowers have gone over.

Since the return of the blessed rain (did I really say that?), the grass is greening and plants are beginning to recover. Some flowers that had just hung on with the occasional watering are now turning a riot of colour. The most spectacular are the Cosmos and Sweet peas. Both were sown as seed early in the year, and unlike 2017 both germinated very well and I had an abundance of plantlets. I had them all planted out in pots and tubs when the drought arrived, so they survived on old washing up water. At first the blossoms of the Cosmos were small and the plants themselves not very tall, but once the rain returned the plants shot up and the blooms got larger and larger. They are now stunning. The sweet peas had early blossom and they are adorning our home in vases the whole summer through.

It’s been a marvellous year for roses: stunning blossom and no trace of diseases such as black spot. One of our rambling roses, a deep pink, has never flowered so well, nor for so long. This came as a cutting from my mother’s garden, she had brought it from her childhood home so she had a particular affection for it. We have no name for it so we call it the Gurrane rose from the name of her home. Cuttings have made their way to many members of the extended family.

In spite of liking well watered conditions the hydrangeas are doing very well, with one exception. The Vanilla fraise hydrangea in the front hedge is normally a mass of cone shaped white blossom tinged with pink, which turn a deeper pink as they age. This year the blossoms are tiny, barely visible, the drought has clearly taken its toll in this part of the garden.

I love to have a display of pink and pastel colours before the changeover to reds, russets and oranges.


Tomatoes galore


One of the advantages of this year’s heatwave is its effect on the flavour of our tomato crop. It does mean we have to keep them watered, but they have been prioritised over everything else in the garden, except for the courgettes.

I get impatient to see new growth early in the year so I sowed my tomato seeds in mid January. They lived on the window sill above a radiator through the snows of March, they were grouped in a plastic container inside the patio doors for our holidays in April and they were put out on the patio when it got warm in May. They toasted through June and July. The first fruits were picked and eaten on 1st July. It’s been an amazing year so far.

The earliest tomatoes are grown in large pots, but as the summer goes on I transplant some into the vegetable bed as space becomes available. They get more nourishment in the soil as even a large pot can be restrictive.

My favourite tomatoes for flavour and yield have been Sungold, Red Stripe, Tumbling Tom red and yellow, and Totem F1. I have been unable to get the seed of Totem for the last few years and it’s a great pity as they form a lovely bushy robust plant with delicious large sized red fruits.

This year I am growing my all-time favourite Sungold, as usual. I’m also trying Rambling Red Stripe, Cristal, Chocolate Cherry, San Marzano and Corazon. Sungold is going beautifully and produced the earliest sweetest juiciest fruits. Cristal makes a strong healthy plant and the bright red fruits are very large and heavy, mine are so heavy that they have bent over the branch and I have had to support the unripe fruits in netting. San Marzano has been a disappointment so far, the fruits are dry and fairly tasteless, and many have got bad spots at the base. This may be the result of the heat and perhaps not enough water. The Rambling Red Stripe are a bit difficult to manage as they spread out widely and are hard to stake and keep in order. However the fruits are quite nice. No trace of ripening on the Chocolate Cherry or Corazon yet.

We are now in a warm humid phase of the weather with blight warnings, so hopefully the tomatoes will survive.


Summer harvest


2018 is a season of extremes in our temperate Atlantic climate. First, following months of rain we had a heavy snowfall with a blizzard causing drifting in the first week of March. Now, having skipped the spring, we have glorious summer weather with heat and sunshine for several weeks, but the ground is very dry and many crops are going to seed. The chard plants have bolted quite spectacularly. We have eaten some of the leaves, but they are a little bitter when it’s gone to seed. However, many plants are coping well and taking it all in their stride.


I sowed yellow courgette seeds indoors in early April, only one came on, so I have sowed green courgette seeds in a hanging basket outdoors. When the yellow one produced flowers and tiny fruits in the kitchen I planted it in the vegetable bed. It came on very well at first, but now it is suffering from the heat and drought even though I water it every evening. Courgettes prefer our usually wet conditions.

The broad beans and beetroot are doing well and producing a good tasty crop. The beans were blown sideways in the storm, but it has not affected their cropping. The first early potatoes are few and small, but the taste is good.

The tomatoes are basking in the heat. I sowed seed in late January and they spent the snow days on the window sill. The plants were big when the heat came, they are very happy outdoors and we were eating lovely warm sweet fruits before the end of June.

We had an early crop of fruit, plentiful red and white currants and gooseberries. The gooseberry plant is suffering from the drought, but it has been in the ground for several years so hopefully it will survive. This year I decided to make gooseberry jelly instead of jam, this is clear and fresh tasting, and avoids the somewhat bitter taste of gooseberry jam.


I picked a good crop of white currants, but the red currants were cleared by our young blackbirds. These young chicks were fledged in the garden so I imagine they consider it their own personal space. They are still being fed occasionally by the now ragged-looking parent birds who are beginning their moult. The second brood was lost in storm Hector in mid June and they appear to have abandoned the nest.

Our raspberries are grown in large pots as we do not have enough space for them in the ground. In a wet or partly wet summer they do well but the completely dry conditions have resulted in small and dry fruits. The strawberry plants had lots of blossom followed by plentiful fruits, but the drought conditions have taken their toll. I covered my new strawberry bed with fleece to deter our blackbirds, but storm Hector brought it down and I did not replace it as the temperature inside the covering was too hot.

A day of rain yesterday, the first in over two months, has restored the grass and given a new lease of life to the vegetable beds.



June blossom


What are the colours of June? The full spectrum is visible in the garden at this time of year, everything is fresh and new, and it is a paradise for bees. This year in particular early June has been exceptional as the weather was dry and warm. Now at the end of the month the sun continues to blaze down, drought has taken hold and water is at a premium. Grass is looking very brown and burnt, and deeply unhappy, many plants are stressed out, and others are blooming early and fading. Our escallonia ‘apple blossom’ had lovely pink buds ready to burst in the first days of June, as the drought took hold those buds just faded and fell in spite of watering.


It’s been a wonderful year for roses, I see them in all the neighbouring gardens and in our own. Dry conditions mean no black spot on leaves, and calm hot weather means that blossom is lasting for ages.


Our front hedge has been lovely too, early in the spring we had the flowering currant and in June we have a profusion of blossom on the pyracantha and sprays of pink roses, the pale pink fuchsia is also coming into blossom.


The first blossom is coming on the hydrangea which was a cutting from my mother’s garden in Cork. This is her famous blue hydrangea, but we cannot keep it blue in our soil. In the first couple of years I potted it in ericaceous compost, buried rusted keys and nails in the soil and watered it only with rain water, but I did not resort to chemicals. Its blossoms were a sickly bluey pink which were very uninspiring. Now I glory in its large pink flowers.

Last year my cosmos grown from seed were a disaster, many did not germinate and those that did were gobbled by slugs. This year I sowed trays and trays of them and guarded them fiercely, with the result that I have so many I can hardly accommodate them all. They are a splendid plant, I love their frothy foliage and their intense flowers.


Last year’s bean stakes sprouted and gave several plants of sambucus nigra, I gave away most, but kept one and potted it up. It produced a single beautiful pink flower this year.


Our eryngium, sea holly, was originally planted in a border, but its desire for world domination saw it transferred to a large pot, I’m still digging pieces of the original plant out of the soil. It’s a wonderful plant for bees and for this alone it’s worth keeping. Its gorgeous blue colour and thistle form is also worth admiring. It does need to be well watered in its pot.