Slug defence

The greatest enemy to tender young seeds is the slug; how disheartening to come out in the morning to notice that an entire row of emerging greens has been completely demolished overnight.

We have tried many deterrents over the years: our slugs don’t seem to go for beer or coffee grounds, they are clean-living vegetarians. As we’re growing food crops and maintain an army of wild birds we do not use chemicals. The slugs have proved too devious to be fooled by copper bands, they come up from the soil underneath instead. Our birds are too well fed to bother eating them. Some plants will help to deter them, such as garlic, mint or chives, and these can be planted among your vulnerable crops.

We  occasionally use organic pellets with iron phosphate. A good tip from Gerry Daly of The Irish Garden, is to place the pellets under a stone where they do not look unsightly and where birds or pets cannot get them. Placing the pellets in a narrow jar on its side half buried in the soil will also work.

However, the best defence I have found is the hanging basket. The basket needs to be in the open and not overlooked by branches or other leaves that will provide access to slugs. We use free-standing metal holders as they can be placed anywhere in the garden. We usually place them at the edge of the vegetable raised beds. Here, baby lettuces, radishes and other small tender seeds can be brought to a safe size for planting out when they are big enough to cope.


Gardening diary

We moved to our garden in the Irish midlands at the end of May 2006. It was such an exciting prospect that I decided to keep a gardening diary for the year. This proved so useful that I have kept it up ever since.

At first I intended to document the initial planting and setting up of the garden, but I discovered that it is a very valuable tool for monitoring progress from year to year. It allows comparisons with weather and growth patterns, and it records trials and errors, successes and failures. It is very interesting to read when certain trees or shrubs were planted, or when blossom first appeared each year, there can be weeks of difference depending on conditions.

I had an A4 sized diary for 2006, which had a full page for each date, and was well bound by Des Breen of Antiquarian Bookcrafts in Marlay Park, Dublin. It has remained in perfect condition for 11 years, although some pages at key gardening times are now full. It is time for a new diary!

I did not record weather conditions at first, except in extreme cases, but now I find it a useful addition. Rare occurrences such as solar eclipses, a blue moon, or the arrival of named tropical storms also find a place.

I have a visual record of the garden from 2008 when I got my first digital camera. This is such a valuable source of information – could our lofty Mountain Ash ever have been so small? – what happened to that plant? – what a wonderful crop of peas, beans or courgettes that year!

Pictures do not lie, although they can be selective. I tend not to photograph the garden when it is looking untidy or under the weather, unless to show some disease, or wilting leaves, to an expert at the garden centre. In this case a picture is worth a thousand words.

First blossom

The frothy blossoms of ornamental cherry trees in spring first gave me the desire to have a garden. While I still love flowering cherries, we have two, I have come to appreciate the blossoms of fruit trees even more as they hold the promise of greater bounty.

In our garden the plum and damson are the first to appear: delicate pink and white flowers hardly able to withstand the cold winds and frosts. This is our second plum tree, the first succumbed after I strangled it with a tree tie. All gardening books and TV garden shows warn about the dangers of tree ties that grow too tight. I was watching for this very problem, but I still missed one and it did irreparable damage.

The pear tree kicks off next with its profusion of white flowers, followed by apples and crab apples in shades of pink. The flowering quince ‘Chaenomeles superba’ is a great delight with its intense red blossoms against the bare wall.

L to R: Plum, Damson, Pear, Apple, Crab Apple, Quince.

All through summer the fruits swell and by September and October are ready to harvest. Seasons vary and affect the harvest; in early September 2011 a very bad wind storm, the tail-end of Hurricane Katia, brought down unripe apples and the entire pear crop; 2016 was a great year for pears, while 2015 gave a miserable four fruits. In 2016 the crab apple ‘Gorgeous’ got a nasty disease affecting leaves and fruit, so no crab apple jelly! This spring, 2017, the new leaves look bright and healthy and it is flowering well. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a crop this year.

When fruiting is over, there is still one act to play, many of the trees put on a lovely autumn colour before revealing their stark sculptural shapes for winter.

These beautiful hard-working trees also come in sizes small enough for most gardens, by careful pruning they can be kept at a manageable size for years. Some will even survive and fruit in pots on a patio or balcony.

Frost pocket

It’s a well-known fact that cities are several degrees warmer than country areas, due to density of housing and other factors. I live 30 miles from Dublin city centre and I notice a good two-week difference in flowering times. This is especially noticeable in spring when we are eagerly awaiting the first Daffodils, the first Cherry blossom and a general awakening after a dreary winter.

When we moved to the midlands we had to abandon any hope of growing certain plants, all but the most robust of Fuchsias cannot survive a winter, and in the first year we lost our Sweet Jasmine, which was thriving outdoors in Dublin for 10 years.

Very severe winters come around every ten years or so. The most recent killer winter was 2010 when we got two bad winters, one in January and the second in November / December, with temperatures falling to minus 20 degrees Celsius, and snow and ice lasting for several weeks. Pots froze solid in the shed and many plants and shrubs were lost. In the midlands Cordyline Palms and Griselinia hedges were wiped out. In the January freeze we lost part of our Griselinia hedge and two neighbours lost the complete hedge. We optimistically replaced the dead section, only to lose the entire hedge in the second freeze. We replaced it with a mix of tough native plants.

Lost were Hebes, French Lavender, Camellia, Fig, Rosemary, Winter Jasmine, dark purple Buddleia, Pieris Japonica and Ceanothus. Any tender plant in a tub had no defence against the conditions, even when covered in fleece. Plants in the back garden fared better then those in the exposed north-facing front.

Some casualties recovered, the naturalised Fuchsia, Viburnums Tinus ‘Gwenllian’ and Bodnantense ‘Dawn’, and Clematis ‘Montana Rubens’ were cut down to the ground, but regrew from the base.

We have come to an appreciation of native and naturalised trees and shrubs that can cope with the cold spells. Native Hawthorn and Holly, Forsythia, Flowering Currant, various Viburnums, Pyracantha, Berberis, Hydrangea, Potentilla, Spiraea, Mahonia, Roses, Heathers, Lilac, and shrubs from cold mountain climates, all do well.


Bin gardening tools

I am so impressed with television gardeners, they have large and beautifully organised sheds, with all the gardening tools hanging neatly on the walls. Can this be achieved in real life?


My shed is crammed with lawn mower, paint cans, buckets and other paraphernalia, and for a lot of the year, by plants sheltering from the weather. I have found a workable solution for the small-sized cluttered shed: I use an old bin to store my long-handled tools and a bucket to store smaller ones. Like a cutlery jar, each tool is visible and easy to get at, and crucially it saves a lot of space.

Gardening in winter

Cold, dark days, the rain is coming down in sheets, and we need the light in the kitchen at two in the afternoon. Now is the time to plan for the spring and summer garden, and to catch up with horticultural reading.

I like to feast on the history of gardening and of particular plants. I love the books on the history of the rose by Jennifer Potter and the tulip by Anna Pavord (The Rose: a true history, Atlantic Books, 2010; The Tulip, Bloomsbury, 1999). Both delve into the historical importance of a single flower, in a lively and entertaining way, using wonderful illustrations from different time periods.


Of real interest too are the books about the shaping of gardens and landscapes over time. I like William Robinson’s The Wild Garden, first published in 1870, and reprinted with lovely new illustrations in 2010 (Cork, The Collins Press). Katherine Swift’s garden at Morville is a favourite of mine as it combines gardening with history. The Morville Hours (Bloomsbury, 2008) is structured around the monastic hours of the day from Vigils to Compline, and its jewel-like cover illustration is like a medieval book of hours.

I keep my old gardening magazines and I have a set of my mother’s too. I keep each month together and rotate them as the year goes on. Apart from sometimes recommending lethal chemicals, the advice remains the same for each season. Styles change and this is interesting in itself, but the core remains the same and valuable lessons can be learned from gardeners of the past. I have the benefit of hindsight, and I give a knowing nod when garden writers hope for a good summer in 2012, while I know that it rained the whole summer and all our tomatoes were eaten green.

When I go on holidays abroad I buy the odd gardening magazine, I need to be careful with the advice as growing conditions are quite different in Portugal, southern Spain and the Midi in France, but they are great for helping with the languages, and they encourage me to read and understand.

Tabula rasa

What a thrill for a couple of novice gardeners to be presented with a blank canvas. Everything seemed possible; there were no boundaries to what might be achieved. At first the plot seemed so large, although it was no bigger than many a suburban garden. Now it seems very small! I imagine we have made most mistakes in the book, maybe there are still a few left, but we’ve enjoyed it all and got great satisfaction from it.

First task was to plan for a few suitable trees to add height and structure. An Acer Palmatum “Garnet” was the first one planted, followed by Laburnum “Golden Rain” and a Mountain Ash, Sorbus Commixta, planted to eventually block our view of the new house being built at the back.

Catalogues from plant and seed suppliers turned out to be the most alluring reading: offering every wonderful plant in perfect condition sent directly to your door, or available from the nearest garden centre. In this way the good, the bad, and the ugly arrived, some to stay forever, whether we wanted them to or not; others to last a short season before giving up in despair. I now know we can never grow an olive tree or a lemon in the cold midlands climate.