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.

Charleen

Crocus

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.

Working-corner

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.

Site-for-glasshouse

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.

Front-wall

 

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.

Hydrangea-rooted-cuttings

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.

Seed-packets

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.

Sambucus-black-lace

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.

April-garden

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.

A dream come true

Ever since we moved home and embarked on our new garden nearly 14 years ago it’s been my ambition to have a glasshouse. Many obstacles stood in the way, the garden was unformed and I did not have a clear idea where it would stand. The space was small and the ground sloping. I did not want to put in foundations in case I needed to change location. The cost of a sturdy house was very high.

Over the years I have examined many glasshouses, but any that I could afford did not seem strong enough to withstand our often swirling winds. I had visions of the whole structure flying off over the roof tops, or more likely a collapse of broken glass and twisted metal. For a long time my plan was to replace one of our two sheds, but I could not reduce their contents enough. Lawn mower, shredder, chimney sweeping equipment, paint cans, garden tools, garden furniture, bird feed, and temporary winter storage all required space. I used a tiered plastic-covered greenhouse for vulnerable seedlings in the spring, but it would not accommodate larger plants.

A glasshouse special in The Irish Garden last year finally let me see something that could work. Aluminium frames and toughened glass in an elegant design, small enough to fit into our space, one model beckoned. The cost was still high, but not crippling. We visited Glasshouse Ireland in Birr, Co Offaly, over the summer and examined their range. What we liked first of all was how strong and robust their glasshouses were, also they were bolted into a concrete cone in the ground, so no foundations, just four concrete cylinders, one at each corner. We ordered their Janssens Urban Victorian model, manufactured in Belgium. Four weeks later our beautiful new glasshouse was in place, looking completely at home in its new space.

 

Glasshouse-01

We had spent the waiting time clearing the site, we dug up four red and white currant bushes and transferred them to large pots. They had been in place for about 10 years and had put down substantial roots, they cannot live long term in pots so I must find other spaces for them. We levelled the space and cleared it of large stones and weeds.

I have great plans for next growing season. It will be wonderful to have a sheltered place to grow the new season tomatoes, I will still start them off on window sills indoors as the glasshouse is unheated, but once they get large they can be transferred directly to their final home under glass. I have potted up two tubs of strawberries and I will test their growth and sweetness of fruit against the outdoor ones. A new fig has already taken its place in one corner.

 

Water of life

 

For too long I have taken water for granted, especially water falling from the sky. In a country where it rains most days, and summers can be a complete washout, it is hard to appreciate the value of soft sweet water. But it is valued by plants and birds alike. Hard flouride-saturated heavily-limed water from the tap bears no comparison with the fresh sweetness of rain water. Last summer’s drought convinced me completely.

The collection and storage of rain water is a priority for most gardeners. Fruit and vegetables are very thirsty plants, especially peas and courgettes, and lack of water ensures a very disappointing crop. We have a water butt at the corner of the shed, supplemented by a number of half barrels in different parts of the garden which collect rain water. They are strategically placed near groups of pots to make watering easier. However, in drought conditions they are emptied very quickly.

 

The presence of accessible water sources attracts wildlife to the garden. We do not have enough space for a pond but we have set up bird bathing places in different areas. The bird bath on a concrete plinth is situated near the feeding station, and a number of plant drip trays are placed on the grass around the garden for ease of bathing. Here a large number of birds come to drink and bathe daily, often doing both simultaneously.

 

Some parties, such as this pigeon, are too large for the facilities, but they seem to enjoy it anyway. During last summer’s drought we set up many more trays and kept them filled as the birds have very few sources of water in the area. From time to time we have encountered frogs in the garden, I am not sure where they come from or where they live, perhaps they are just day visitors.