The end of an affair (with a robin)

Never lose your heart to a wild creature: it will always end in tears.

Charlot was born in the neighbourhood of our garden in the spring of 2014. We’ve followed his progress through all the important stages of his life. He was fledged and had his first feeding rituals in our garden. When he grew to adulthood and displayed his fine red breast, he fended off all rivals and established himself as the ruling genius. We were there for his courtship the following spring and his first brood; we provided food and advice when his moult began while he was still feeding his youngsters; we saw him fall in love again the next spring, and his two new babes were fed on our patio.

His favourite resting places were those where he could catch our attention: on the laburnum or apple tree, looking directly in at the kitchen sink; the bench from which he could view the kitchen table; and the handle of the French door where he could peck the glass for attention. Outside, he liked the fuschia next to the stone bench, and he had his own concrete column for feeding.

The garden provided most of his nutrition, but his favourite special treat was mild white cheddar cheese, which he consumed in vast quantities. First thing in the morning, even before I was dressed, he arrived to beg for cheese. He even offered it as a gourmet dish to his lady friend.

Disaster struck this spring when a strange new robin turned up and decided that this would be his territory. We looked on helplessly as the fight for domination played out for several weeks. We patiently explained that we could accommodate both, but neither would listen. Charlot was gradually forced back across the garden until he held only a small section near the bench. After a dreadful aerial battle Charlot moved out and ceded the territory. He sneaked back a few times in the following days but the neighbourhood bully kept a sharp watch. We were devastated, but could not intervene in nature’s ways. The aggressor has moved on, but Charlot has not returned.

It is now midsummer and an adolescent robin has arrived on his own, without parents or siblings. He has not developed his red breast yet, but he is making himself quite at home.

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Beeline

There are many reasons why we wish to attract bees and other pollinators to our gardens. Fruit and vegetables perform better when they are pollinated, in fact some will not fruit or flower at all without the help of our bees. On a macro level we wish to keep up the world’s population of bees to safeguard food supplies into the future. And, what sound is more evocative of lazy summer afternoons than the buzz of contented bees!

We installed our raised beds for vegetables by the patio, outside the kitchen door: a fairly barren part of the garden at that time. We decided to enhance the attractiveness of this sunny corner by planting a native (naturalised) Fuchsia and a group of herbs in pots. In case this was not incentive enough to attract bees we added a ‘beeline’, a line of pots and tubs to edge the patio area, next to the vegetable beds, which would be filled with summer flowers. Here we plant bee-loving borage and sweet peas to give some height and a splash of summer annuals. When the season is over these tubs are emptied and stored away until the following year. Originally I used a variety of pots pressed into service, but I settled on a group of large flat tubs that gave a bit of structure and a look of uniformity, while the flowers could spill out with joyful abandon.

 

The first year I decided to use a summer meadow mix of wild flowers in the pots. This was not really a success and by the end of the summer we had a tangle of thugs and very few flowers. The next year I chose the better components of the meadow mix, such as cornflowers, and grew them individually. Now, however, I sow a combination of self-seeding plants such as borage, calendula (marigolds) and nasturtiums, with a variety of plants grown from seed or rescued from dried-out supermarket shelves which are sold off cheaply. Cornflowers have remained an annual staple, poppies sometimes make an appearance, cosmos, nicotiana, ageratum, and occasionally lavender, salvia and other perennials for just one season. Each year gives a new show, with different colours, textures and forms, the bees seem happy and I’m sure the vegetables benefit.

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?

Tools

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.