One of the most beautiful sights in May are the drifts of bluebells found in deciduous woods. We delight in them every year at Killinthomas Wood near Rathangan, County Kildare, not far from our home. This is managed by Coillte, the Irish forestry division; it is a wonderful place to walk all year round, but in May it is magical.
The wood is a mix of deciduous and coniferous trees, made up of oak, beech, ash and birch trees, with hawthorn and hazel in the understory. In late spring ferns are unfurling their fronds and woodbine (honeysuckle) is putting on fresh green leaves, some native primroses are visible, but not as many as you’d expect. Bluebells and wild garlic combine in May to make a carpet of blue and white under the dappled light of the emerging foliage.
The wood is home to many of our native birds: wrens, chaffinches, blackbirds, goldcrests, blue tits and wood pigeons are easily spotted flitting among the trees. Larger mammals are more shy but we have spotted a red squirrel, which is a real cause for celebration as there are fewer red squirrels in the eastern part of Ireland now due to the presence of the grey squirrel.
The woods are popular with walkers but never seem overcrowded as different walks loop around the site and a feeling of calm and serenity reigns.
Every year I take great care to prepare my seed potatoes. I buy certified potatoes as soon as they become available in the garden centre, usually in late January or February. Then they spend a month chitting or sprouting in a cool frost-free place: our bedroom. They are planted out on St Patrick’s Day (17 March) or a bit later if the weather is bad. I often have fresh seaweed to add to the soil which gives excellent nutrients, this is gathered responsibly from the beach, I never pluck growing weed, only that which has come adrift. They are carefully earthed up through their growing season to protect the stalks and foliage.
I always plant first earlies, these are the delicious tasty early potatoes which are ideal for salads, or for eating fresh with butter and a handful of herbs. My favourites are Red Duke of York and Sharpe’s Express, both lovely, dry, floury potatoes. They also have the advantage of avoiding potato blight, which is more common later in the summer when they are already harvested. With an early harvest I then have room in my vegetable beds for later crops such as courgettes and runner beans. The disadvantage is that I have to monitor them carefully for frost damage. In 2017 a heavy frost in late May damaged the foliage and resulted in a poor crop with smaller and fewer potatoes.
After all this care and attention I then get volunteer potatoes growing on the site of last year’s crop, oblivious to frost and other mishaps. Each year I try to make sure that all potatoes are dug up, leaving none in the soil, yet I must be missing some, maybe very small, or deeply buried ones. This year’s crop of volunteers has emerged completely unscathed among my chard plants after the coldest winter in many years. Sometimes I dig out these intruders, but often I let them grow on and they taste wonderful, just as good as my pampered plants.
This year I am growing all my potatoes in large tubs, in this way I’m hoping to achieve the crop rotation recommended and also to ensure that all tubers are removed from the soil at the end of the season.
It can be difficult to dispose of hard woody prunings, if possible I try to reuse them. Otherwise I chop them up and send them to the Council recycling centre, as my own compost bins are too small to break them down in less than 5 years.
Rose prunings are good to place on newly dug ground to deter a visiting cat, but having served their purpose they too are consigned to the Council compost bin. Larger trees and shrubs provide stakes and supports. Bamboo makes perfect stakes, but they can be softer than those you get in the garden centre, it’s best to let them dry out well before using them.
Our Sambucus Nigra ‘Black Lace’ is a beautiful plant but it does outgrow its space and so it needs to be pruned quite hard every year. Last summer I reused the Sambucus prunings as stakes for my broad beans, they were very suitable, strong and straight. However as the beans grew up I noticed that the stakes were beginning to sprout. By the autumn when the beans had produced their crop and were ready to be composted most of the stakes had a good fringe of fresh new leaves. At the end of the season I saw that they had sturdy roots and I potted them up.
I shared these new plants with two friends and kept one myself. They are deciduous so they remained as bare sticks over the winter. Now it is spring and most have survived in our three gardens and are putting on beautiful new wine-red leaves. I will try to grow this one in a large pot as a specimen and try to keep it small.
After nine months of almost ceaseless rain moss is the best performing plant growing outdoors in my garden. I look on the grass and front borders with despair, these are north facing and in the shadow of the house for most of the day. Our friend who is a very talented gardener with a large garden in Cork is resigned: he says “embrace the moss”. He gardens over a number of acres in the wettest part of the country in West Cork, where moss is a permanent feature. Because he has lots of space with large shrubs and very tall trees defining his growing area the moss takes on a character of its own and adds to the rural charm of his garden.
In our small garden, however, it looks like neglect. We are now half way through April and we only managed the first grass cut yesterday, the ground was so sodden we feared ploughing up the grass into muddy furrows. Some of our neighbours made the first cut two weeks ago, but they have cut very short and this only accentuates the moss and weed growth. We have put down organic lawn feed to encourage strong and healthy growth of grass.
The blackbirds have been vigorously digging out the moss over the last three or four weeks. They are actively nest building and I cannot imagine a more cosy nest lining than warm soft moss. Their diggings make the front lawn look very bad, but the lawnmower will pick up the loose material.
Yesterday too I tidied up the front borders as there is more rain forecast for the next few days. I removed all the moss which had entwined itself through all the spring flowers, and mulched carefully overall. This looks better for a while at least, and hopefully will give some nourishment to the awakening plants.
I have had a dilemma for many years, can I afford to give up space to a glasshouse or polytunnel? I would love the sheltered growing opportunities, but I have so little garden space to work with. The most suitable location would be where the vegetable beds are, outside the kitchen door in a relatively level and sunny situation, while there is a gentle but perceptible slope on the rest of the garden. So far, I have decided to manage without this luxury.
I miss a glasshouse most in the early spring and during the winter months, spring when new seeds are germinating and plants cannot be put outdoors until all threat of frost has passed, and in winter for over-wintering tender plants. I have to come up with alternative solutions for these times.
Tender plants are not an option if they need over-winter shelter, unless they’re privileged enough to be brought into the house. Some plants spend the winter in the garden shed, this works most years but if we get a cold blast it can kill off everything. Tender Fuchsias take refuge in the shed, but some small plants grown from cuttings have taken up residence on the bedroom window.
Springtime is when I need the most innovative solutions as I sow seeds and have small delicate new plants coming up. The shelves of the growhouse can accommodate a lot of plant trays, but it is susceptible to frost and slugs can get in and cause devastation overnight. I use a plastic storage box as a cold frame, but it too is prone to frost and slug attack.
Window sills and a low table in the kitchen remain the best options for lettuce, tomatoes and new seedlings, but these spaces fill up very quickly. I have had to rethink sowing early seed of courgette and runner beans indoors, the plants get very large very quickly and are soft and fragile, they suffer badly when put outdoors. Now I tend to wait until May and sow beans directly into the vegetable bed and try to protect the emerging leaves from predators, and sow courgettes in hanging baskets until they’re big enough to take their chances in the ground.
If we decide to take a break or a holiday in the spring tomato and lettuce plants retire to the bath where they can stay watered, and out of direct sunlight. This allows them to tick over until we return.
This year the window sills are already overflowing and once again I think longingly of a glasshouse.
Gerard’s Herball, 1597
Ireland’s national symbol is the shamrock, traditionally worn on St Patrick’s Day it returns to obscurity for the rest of the year. The shamrock is prized by Irish communities all over the world and there is a strong export trade in the plants at this time of year. A bowl of shamrock is presented to the American president at the White House by the Irish taoiseach or prime minister every St Patrick’s Day.
The shamrock has a delicate flavour and can be eaten as part of the salad. It was used as a flavour in Keogh’s Shamrock and Sour Cream potato crisps for St Patrick’s Day one year and it became so popular that it’s now a regular part of their stock.
So what plant is the shamrock? An early description of the shamrock is found in Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum: or a short treatise of native plants by Caleb Threlkeld (1676-1728), which was published in Dublin in 1726 and reissued the following year with a new title page. Threlkeld considered it the first Irish flora, calling it “the first essay of this kind in the Kingdom of Ireland”.
Caleb Threlkeld, Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum: or a short treatise of native plants (Dublin, 1727). Dublin City Library & Archive, Gilbert Library (www.dublincitypubliclibraries.ie )
It includes the names of Irish native plants in English, Latin and Irish, giving their medicinal uses and any other interesting information. There is an introduction by Dr Thomas Molyneux, Physician to the State in Ireland, and an appendix that includes plants identified by Molyneux. This volume was published by subscription, which means that interested readers paid a part of the cost in advance of publication, and it includes a list of subscribers. A facsimile edition was published in 1988 with a good introduction by E. Charles Nelson, which includes biographical information on Threlkeld.
Threlkeld’s treatise on native Irish plants refers to the shamrock under its botanical name Trifolium Pratense, (White flowered meadow trefoil). There has been much debate about the exact origin of the shamrock, many people considering it a form of clover. Threlkeld notes its identification by Gerard in his Herball of 1597. He gives its Irish name seamar-oge, and refers to people wearing it in their hats on 17 March, St Patrick’s Day. As a clergyman, Rev. Dr. Threlkeld shows his disapproval of the way the people celebrated the day by “drowning the Shamrock”, an over-indulgence in alcohol.
The old saying goes: if March comes in like a lion it goes out like a lamb, but if it comes in like a lamb it goes out like a lion. This year March was ushered in by the rampaging lion. A lethal combination of Siberian air coming from the east giving widespread snow across the country and the Atlantic storm Emma rolling up the western coast of Europe from Portugal via the Bay of Biscay ensured that the precipitation turned immediately to snow and the wind created blizzards.
Met Éireann, the meteorological service, recorded the largest amount snow since 1947. That year Arctic winds had been bringing snow from mid January, but the blizzard began on 24-25 February and lasted for 50 hours. Over a 7 week period snow fell on 30 days and snow and ice remained on the ground until May. The event is known as The Big Snow and it claimed very many lives.
We are not used to snow, most years we do not get any at all, so we are not prepared for it. Our weather typically comes from the west, so if it snows it’s usually wet and does not last. It’s the weather from the east that causes problems and all major snow events in the last century have been caused by cold dry winds from the east. Widespread snow affected Dublin and the eastern part of Ireland in January 1982, after the initial fall of snow which was continuous over 36 hours, it froze and remained frozen for over a week bringing the capital to a complete standstill. In late 2010 the snow and frost began on 30 November and it did not thaw until 26 December, because of the unrelenting freeze enormous damage was done to water pipes and to gardens. This was the second freeze-up in 2010, the first one occurred in January and led to the loss of hedges and shrubs right across the country. Our Griselinia hedge survived the January freeze but succumbed to the December one.
This time blizzards made it very dangerous on the roads but it did not freeze, so after 4 or 5 days of drifting snow blocking roads and covering fields and gardens a gradual thaw began. One week later there are still banks of snow creating canyons on minor roads and there are pockets of snow in fields and on verges.
Our poor hungry birds were a sorry sight, there were no pickings for them at all, so we increased their rations and added helpings of chopped fruit and cheese. As well as our usual garden birds we had a single Redwing who took up residence near the buffet for 4 days and then disappeared once conditions improved. We also had a visit from a fieldfare and I saw a snipe cruising by. The collar doves were afraid to land on the snow and they were all but absent until this week. One of our 2 robins got very bold and ran into the kitchen every the door was opened as well as begging at the kitchen window.
I do not know how much damage has been done to the garden, we will be counting the cost for the next few weeks. The tall daffodils were all beaten down, but the smaller jonquil types and snowdrops seem to have coped well and are emerging again. The heavy snow has broken many low-lying branches and the grass has turned to pure mud in places.