In spite of a couple of severe Atlantic storms many of our trees and shrubs are still showing glorious autumn colour. Near our home the roads are lined with beech and chestnut trees, the richness of the colour is fading a bit but they still look great. The motorways too have been planted with a mix of deciduous trees and shrubs that are showing vivid colours as far as the eye can see. Our road is lined with silver birch trees which display a delicate range of colours at this time of year.
The colours in our own garden are on a more modest scale, but we have chosen a range of plants to give us good colour at this time. In the front border a combination of Berberis, Euonymus alatus, Rosa rugosa, Rhus typhina ‘Tiger eyes’ (dwarf stag’s horn) and Virginia creeper give an intense display of reds and oranges early in the autumn. These have now mostly handed over to a large Forsythia which is beginning to show its finery. Many gardeners do not value the Forsythia as its enthusiastic growth often means it outgrows its space, and as it’s trouble free there’s no challenge in producing a healthy specimen. I welcome its lively habit, and its profusion of small yellow flowers early in the year are a real delight, its autumn colour is a bonus. It does need to be kept pruned as it can spread and get very tall and dense.
In the back garden the Sorbus (mountain ash) tree and Acer (Japanese maple) ‘Orange dream’ give a dazzling display along with the low spread of the Spiraea japonica. Some of the fruit bushes also produce a nice colour, the blueberries are particularly fine, but the currants also show nice shades of yellow and pale orange.
Alpines are so beautiful with their jewel-like blossom and hardy dispositions. Unfortunately they are never very happy in my garden. On different occasions I have planted Saxifrage, Achillea, Primula, Arabis, Dianthus, Armeria, Gentiana, Lychnis, Sedum and Pratia angulata. They always start out well, but the heaviness and wetness of my clay soil does not allow them to flourish. I had the idea of growing them between the stepping stones that lead to the bird feeder, however in a short time they became straggly and overgrown with coarse grass and weeds. I opened up a new front border in the spring of 2016 under the flowering cherry tree and this seemed an ideal spot, however only the saxifrage and primroses are doing well. I have transferred the dianthus to pots and they are growing a lot better.
The stories of their growth in the wild in the high Alps, and their collection for use in our gardens, is also fascinating. I have a particular fondness for William Robinson’s book on alpines, first published in 1870. William Robinson (1838-1935), born in County Down, Northern Ireland, was one of the most influential horticulturalists of the late 19th century. He transformed English and Irish gardens and changed the way that gardeners used their space. He was the son of a farm labourer and started his career as a garden boy in County Laois in the Irish midlands. He combined a practical knowledge with an eye for beauty in the landscape, the term ‘Robinsonian gardens’ is used to describe his particular vision of an ideal garden. He promoted the creation of shared public spaces and he encouraged the cultivation of fruit and vegetables in urban gardens to promote public health.
Robinson was a plant collector, and this charming sketch drawn after his first day’s collecting in the Alps, gives an idea of the hardships endured in the field. Alpine flowers in English gardens is one of William Robinson’s earliest books. He helped to extend the period of interest in English and Irish gardens by encouraging gardeners to plants hardy plants that would flower at different times of the year.
Next year I will try to make a dedicated area that will provide the conditions necessary to keep Alpines happy and flowering.
We had been warned for the last few days that Hurricane Ophelia was on a direct course for Ireland and Scotland, and would reach our south western shores on Monday morning. We are not used to such extreme weather conditions and our homes and gardens are not prepared to withstand the onslaught. The south and west of Ireland get the main brunt of Atlantic storms, but here in the midlands most storms have lost their power by the time they reach us. We often get the tail end of hurricanes, but by the time they track this far east they have been reduced to storms. This is the most severe hurricane to reach us since Hurricane Debbie in September 1961 in which 11 people were killed in storm-related incidents. For people of my generation Hurricane Charlie in August 1986 was the big one, as it caused major flooding throughout the country and widespread loss of electricity.
It is difficult to batten down the hatches in the garden. At this time of year the trees and shrubs still have lots of leaves and are more vulnerable to the wind. We gave the birds extra rations early in the morning, so that they would be ready for their ordeal. I have so many pots that I could only choose my most precious to deserve a place in the sheds, or in the house. I have picked many of the apples, but some are not ready yet, and as many ripe and nearly ripe tomatoes as possible. We have dismantled the sundial and brought the dial part indoors. It took ages to remember how to fold up the revolving clothes line. We have taken in all the hanging baskets and plastic domes covering some tender vegetables, I think they will have a better chance of survival without their covering.
Most plants will have to take their chances and we will do the clear up when it has passed. The tall ones are the most vulnerable and they cannot be taken indoors. By three o’clock in the afternoon the main surge was due in the next two to three hours. Already the Silver Birch trees on our road were bent over in the wind and our currant bushes were nearly horizontal. Suddenly the power went, and with it the wifi, we scouted out the one radio we have that runs on batteries to keep up-to-date with news. I had cooked a one pot pasta this morning in case of outage. As long as we felt safe it’s very nice to eat by firelight and candlelight.
It’s that time of year again, many crops have yielded their bounty and are beginning to fade. Vegetable beds need to be cleared out for winter, seeds need to be gathered, annuals need to be composted and perennials need to be tidied up. It is still too early to cut back larger deciduous trees and shrubs, but there is a lot to be done to prepare the garden for the dark days and frosty nights.
This weekend I have cleared out my runner beans. They have cropped amazingly this year, we have had beans with every meal for months. Now only a few coarse pods are left and it’s time to take them out. The ‘Early Onward’ peas are also at an end. I did sow a late crop just to see how they would perform, they have blossom now but it may be too late from them to produce pods. The last of the potatoes are dug, I have left them in the ground as they hold better than if I dig them all up together, but I need to get them out now before the slugs attack them. I only sow early potatoes to avoid blight, so these potatoes will need to be eaten as they are not suitable for storage. It is wonderful to have the great taste of new potatoes up to October.
The courgettes are still producing, but fruits are smaller now. We had a night of frost during the week, I covered them with fleece and they survived, but it’s now only a matter of time until they succumb. The tomatoes are still struggling on, there has been enough sun between the showers to ripen them, but they do not have ‘sun-kissed’ taste that they achieve some summers.
I have mulched the rhubarb with home-made compost to give it protection and enrichment over the cold spell. I now grow rhubarb in two large bins as it was too vigorous in the ground and it swamped all around it. It seems happy as it has great depth of soil and it provides plenty of rhubarb for eating. Next job is to tidy up the strawberries. The older plants need to have their withered leaves removed and new runners need to be separated from parent plants. This year I have made a new strawberry bed, so I am discarding many of the older plants as they deteriorate after their third season.
Into the space left by the potatoes I have planted out chard and beetroot plants that have been grown from seed. They should survive until the new year. I have planted garlic and some red onions too. The rest of the vegetable beds will lie dormant for the winter. Instead of planting green manure I usually give the empty spaces a generous layer of home-made compost and cover them with cardboard (begged from the supermarket). A thin layer of clay over the cardboard will keep it in place and it will rot down over the winter.
Each growing year is different for vegetables, the combination of weather conditions affects the patterns of growth and maturity. This year has been good for courgettes (zucchini) due to the dry sunny weather at the start of their growth, and the wet conditions over the summer months, as they require a lot of water while they’re producing. A single plant can produce tens of fruits in its lifetime and I find that three or four plants can keep us supplied for the summer.
Seeds germinate easily but the early weeks can be critical. In the Irish climate plants need to be germinated and grown under cover and cannot be put outside until the end of May or even early June, by which time they can be quite large and demanding. Any hint of frost and they melt away. Slugs love the tender baby leaves also and I have lost many plants that I planted out into the vegetable bed too soon, at which point it can be too late to grow new plants from seed. So each year it’s a delicate balance.
I like to pick courgettes when they are quite small and the flavour is best. If I am going away for a few days I pick all good sized fruits before I go as I could have large tough marrows when I return. They do not freeze well, they defrost as a flavourless soggy offering. If I have to freeze them I cook them first and have them mixed with onions and tomatoes so that they can go straight into a casserole or other dish.
The baby courgettes are lovely in salads sliced raw. They are also great baked in the oven, divide them lengthways and place them cut side down on the baking tray. Courgette fritters are nice, made in a flour, milk and egg batter. One of my best loved recipes is a courgette cake. I first sampled this in one of my favourite places in London, the Museum of Garden History in Lambeth (https://gardenmuseum.org.uk/ ), when on a visit to their amazing museum and walled knot garden. I make it to the recipe for carrot cake and put lemon drizzle on top. I have discovered that it’s best to use a small to medium courgette as too much grated courgette gives a soggy result. The cake is fresh and light and for me encapsulates the taste of summer.
Life can be hard for our birds, but gardeners can really make a difference to their chances of survival. Even if we do not provide food specifically marketed for them our gardens can provide all they need for most of the year. Exceptions are hard frosty winters where food is scarce and water is frozen.
As well as being so attractive to watch, our birds perform a very useful service, helping us with harmful insects and slugs. It must be said that our birds are not too keen on slugs and much prefer the goodies in the hanging feeders, and I can’t say I blame them.
This late summer early autumn time provides a bounty for them. Berries are prolific on Pyracantha and Hawthorn. Roses have plentiful hips and Rosa Rogusa produces a large red berry beloved of blackbirds. Holly berries never make it as far as Christmas. Our Sambucus (Elderflower ‘Black Lace’) has handsome clusters of black berries and our Mountain Ash (Sorbus Commixta) has sprays of deep orange berries which attract thrushes and blackbirds. The early morning is the best time to see the birds in full foraging mode, the whole tree shakes as they pry loose the ripe berries. They do not seem to bother with the fallen berries which they have shaken loose, but maybe when times get hard they will take these up as well. The number of self seeded Hawthorns and Mountain Ashes suggests that at least some berries escape them and make their own way in the world.
Having feasted on raspberries, strawberries and currants in summer they now turn their attention to the ripening apples, pears and damsons. It is a bit annoying when they only take a few pecks from an apple and move on to try another. I sometimes chop up windfall apples for them, or when the winter gets severe I remove the damaged parts of stored apples and chop up the rest for them. When stored fruits are depleted and if the weather is harsh we give them chopped up grapes.
Today is the autumn equinox, the natural end to summer and the beginning of the shorter days. Traditionally an unsettled time of gales and mixed weather, it is a good time to review the gardening year.
2017 in Ireland was characterised by a dry and sunny spring in April and May after a very mild winter with hardly any frost. This resulted in an early season, and some annuals even survived the winter. The slugs and snails also survived the winter, with only too obvious results. While continental Europe baked in over 40 degrees Celsius summer temperatures we got the corresponding low pressure with rain and winds. August and September have been particularly wet.
The wonderful thing about gardening is, that no matter what the weather, some plants are going to enjoy the conditions. So, peas, beans, courgettes and lettuce were happy and abundant, while tomatoes were so-so, they got warm sunny conditions early on, but rain and low light meant that they are slow to ripen and the taste is not as sweet as it can be. First early potatoes (Sharpe’s Express and Red Duke of York) were floury and dry, and of excellent flavour, as they benefitted from the early warm conditions. Early fruits did well, strawberries, raspberries, red, white and black currants and gooseberries all gave big crops. Winds wiped out the pears as the immature fruits were knocked to the ground, but apples are good, they held on and are now ready to harvest.
Last year was great for roses, they were long lasting and trouble free, but this year the first flush of blooms was fine, but as the summer went on they got saturated and blown about. The sweet peas started out well but got destroyed in August. All tall plants have got a hammering and the Rudbeckias, usually the mainstay of autumn colour, have been shredded.
Now is the time to think of next spring and plant bulbs to bring a bit of joy in the cold early year when there is little else to gladden the heart.