Embrace the moss


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.



In like a lion


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.


Irish garden bird survey


BirdWatch Ireland runs an annual survey of garden birds to monitor the number and variety of birds visiting our gardens. The current survey runs from the start of December 2017 to the end of February 2018. The countryside has undergone great change in the last few decades and native habitats are diminishing. Gardens now perform an important role in maintaining stocks of different species of birds. The first part of the survey involves a description of the garden: its size and location, and whether feeding stations are provided.

The main survey is quite simple, the largest number of a particular species observed in each one week period is recorded. A list of the most likely bird species is provided with some blank spaces for other species observed. The survey only records the number of birds seen together at any one time to avoid duplication. The results of the surveys are compiled and can be viewed online. A table of the Top 20 birds in Irish gardens is produced from the figures. The robin has topped the table for the last several years, followed closely by the blackbird, appearing in almost 100% of gardens.

Completing the survey is a highlight of the winter months. With the vegetation down it is easier to spot the different visitors to the bird table, however counting them is quite a challenge. Sparrows appear in the largest numbers in our garden followed by tits (great tits, blue tits, coal tits and long tailed tits) and finches (chaffinches, goldfinches, greenfinches and bullfinches). The tits are among my favourite birds, they are always impeccably turned out, looking smart and well dressed no matter what the season. They are intelligent too, they will cautiously examine any new feeding feature and quickly figure out how it works. They will often swoop into the bucket of grain to grab some seeds before they are served up.

We have two robins at present, they do not seem to be a mating pair as they are often involved in aggressive behaviour. Blackbirds are daily visitors, they like to feast on chopped apples which are bruised or no longer perfect and are not good for human consumption. When the weather gets very cold and frosty they get some chopped up grapes as well. One song thrush visits most days, he picks around under the shrubs. We have two wrens, one very light in colour, they live around the compost bins and do not bother with the bird table. We have seen the lovely gold crests, sometimes one or two together, but they are rare visitors.

Our collar doves come in to peck at the food dropped on the ground and to sit contemplating the world on the wall or on the branches of our trees. We have one visiting jackdaw who feeds on the food dropped from the bird table. He is welcome on his own, but when a group arrives it always means trouble: they squabble and fight, knock over the feeders and frighten away all the smaller birds. We have very few starlings so far this year. We usually have two or three regular visitors to the feeders, and from time to time a large group who start at one end of the grass and carefully cover the entire space searching for worms and grubs, and then fly off.

For the last number of years our garden is on the radar of a sparrowhawk. He swoops in every few weeks and sometimes he makes a catch. I feel no guilt about frightening him away, I know he needs to eat and feed a family, but our birds are sitting targets and easy prey.

Bounty for birds

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.


Raspberries in captivity

How can a small garden provide a dedicated space for that most wonderful of summer fruits: the raspberry? For me the raspberry is the quintessential taste of summer. Until recent years their season in shops and markets was very short, and they are so perishable that they need to be eaten as soon as possible after being picked.

Shortly after we moved to our garden we purchased two summer raspberry plants (Rubus idaeas) to be placed tidily near the perimeter fence on the west side of the garden We have never netted them in case we would injure or kill visiting birds if they got caught in the net in the early morning. The first year we got a lovely crop of tasty succulent raspberries, which we shared with the neighbourhood blackbirds. The second year we had many more raspberry bushes and they filled the allocated space, we were able to make jam as well as eat them fresh and share with the birds. At this point we had put in our two vegetable beds in the sunny south west section, so we restrained the raspberries with a plastic barrier just under the soil. Two years of advance and retreat followed as the plants tried to escape their space, they even began to emerge in the new vegetable bed across the gravel path.

We carefully cut out the old canes each year and tried to limit the new canes as suggested by the experts. Scientific research showed us that the plants spread by sending out runners just under the soil which then sought to colonise new territories. Much as we loved the fruit this would result in the whole garden being swamped.

Finally I decided to dig them out, otherwise we would become a monoculture garden. Not able to bear the idea of being without them altogether, we selected the best behaved new canes (relatively speaking) and placed them in six large tubs (50 cm in diameter and 45 cm high) in the windy alley to the east of the house near the compost bins: exile indeed! This is a shadier area and is a fairly hostile environment for any tender plant. The tubs provide good drainage, which they like, and we mulch them every spring with home-made compost and water them well with stored rain water during any dry spells in summer.

Home-grown raspberries mature and ripen and cause a glut in a few short weeks. We eat them fresh in June and early July, but we freeze them for making jam later. Small quantities can be frozen each day as they ripen and they are perfect for making jam later in the summer. The process of freezing seems to make them more tart in flavour, so they are not suitable for eating defrosted, but they are better for jam and preserves.

The raspberries are thriving in their tubs, and while they bear somewhat less fruit, there is still plenty for the needs of humans and blackbirds.

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.