Bluebell woods


Killinthomas-woodOne 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.



Growing stakes

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.


Woodland tangle

Nearly twelve years of enthusiastic planting has turned a tabula rasa (the blank space of our back garden) into a woodland thicket. It’s time to reclaim the space, or to lose it in a tangle of vegetation. Lack of light at ground level and woodland conditions are changing the character of the area. I have fallen into the most common of gardener’s errors: planting too many specimens and underestimating the growth habit of trees and shrubs. I love most of the planting in this section, but it needs to be thinned out and not allowed to grow so tall or it will become unmanageable. Many smaller more delicate plants have been lost due to the absence of light.

This autumn I was resolved to start on the pruning regime. The weather made it difficult to make much progress, but I have begun the task. The raised border at the eastern side has two large trees that will tolerate hard pruning, Sambucus Nigra “Black Lace” and Viburnum Bodnantense “Dawn”, a large Hydrangea, two unnamed climbing roses, a pale pink and a rose pink, Pernettya with pink berries, a large white Phlox, Mahonia, and a spreading Hellebore. Underneath there are Cyclamen, Astrantia, self seeding Aquilegias, and a host of spring bulbs. I do not want to take the trees out, I have pruned them back severely and I hope to keep them in check. The two roses have climbed vigorously, sending long thorny arches into the neighbouring garden, I prune these every year, but I think they need a heavier hand.

At the back wall, running the length of the garden to the south there is a large holly supporting the rampant rose Rambling Rector, and offering protection to the delicate Acer “Orange Dream”. Roses Zéphirine Drouhin and an unnamed white dog rose, and Clematis Montana Rubens scramble along a sturdy timber structure, a strong thorny Pyracantha “Red Column” holds its own, and a Viburnum Tinus “Gwenllian” crouches underneath. Behind the bench the white dog rose continues and tangles into the Clematis Viticella Purpurea “Plena Elegans”. Beyond the bench is the slow growing Magnolia “Leonard Messel”,  a large Hawthorn, brought from Cork as a cutting, with Honeysuckle “Lonicera Belgica” growing through it, Bergenia tucked in under it, and two Potentillas flanking it, one yellow and one pink. Purple flowering heathers, daffodils, crocus, snowdrops, and other spring bulbs are planted underneath.

First step was to raise the space under the plants by pruning lower branches, this allows light in and a Ruscus under the holly has produced red berries for the first time in years. I still need to reduce the height of the holly. The Rambling Rector rose has climbed to the top of the holly, into the heights of the Sorbus (Mountain Ash) and into a large Damson tree growing outside our garden wall. With its abundance of white blossom it looks amazing for two to three weeks in June, but this vigorous rose will have to be kept to a more manageable height, up to now I have been nervous of killing it, but I think that’s unlikely.


Gardening under water

My garden is a soggy sight, it has rained since July with only an occasional dry day. Even when we get a dry day it is so wet under foot that walking around compacts the soil and turns the grass to mud. All the water butts are overflowing and moss is growing everywhere. In April the Met office told us that there was a 40% water deficit in the soil, this has been redressed now – and some!

Many jobs that should have been completed in the autumn are still waiting to be done. I tackled some pruning when we had a few frosty days, but cold frosty weather is not the best time to prune. I need to reduce the size of the Laburnum as it is beginning to outgrow its space, but I need solid ground to support the ladder.


Surprisingly, some things are looking reasonably well, but the overall effect is bleak: rotting foliage on plants and shrubs and wet leaves sticking to the paths.


The winter flowering shrubs, such as Viburnums, are not as good as usual but still provide a welcome splash of colour. The pink rose in the front bed still has blossom in spite of adverse conditions. The Hydrangea heads look interesting, but they are very wet so they may not last until spring.  The Witch Hazel is starting into blossom and the Magnolia is developing its catkins.


The vegetable beds are the saddest, they are mostly tucked up for the winter with a layer of home-made compost covered by soft cardboard that will rot down, and a layer of soil over the top. The garlic bulbs are beginning to show. I am experimenting with overwintering pea plants to see if we can get an early crop. I planted saved seed of Early Onward in the autumn and covered the emerging plants with a plastic dome. I do not expect much growth over the winter, but I hope they will have a head start in the spring.


Autumn colours


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.


Pruning is my least favourite job in the garden. It makes me nervous, I worry about killing a plant, about inhibiting blossom, and about ruining the shape. I have two books specifically on pruning and I watch YouTube videos before embarking on a pruning task.

I now feel fairly confident with the fruit trees. I prune the apples, pear, plum and damson in summer to keep them small and I do another trim in winter to tidy up the shape. I take out dead, damaged and crossing branches as well as those growing inwards or downwards, or at an acute angle to the trunk. I cut back the annual upright soft growth. Three apples trees, one of them a crab apple, are trained as a cordon on a wooden frame and they need to be pruned to shape and tied in to the frame.

We have two clematis, the early summer flowering Montana Rubens and the summer flowering Viticella Purpurea Plena Elegans. The Viticella is pruned down to the base in spring just as the new growth is starting, but the Montana is pruned in June after flowering. Both are very vigorous and I find it quite hard to prune the Montana as it twines itself around other climbers and it’s easy to cut the wrong plant.

Rambling and climbing roses are beautiful while in bloom, but can be a nightmare to prune afterwards. Our Rambling Rector swamps all around it in spring when it puts on thousands of buds which cannot be cut back until after flowering. The stems are strong and thorns vicious, and many times I’ve ended up scratched and bleeding from it. However, the short-lived blossom is so glorious that I forgive it everything. It has even begun to grow up the nearly Mountain Ash and Sambucus Nigra ‘Black Lace’, sometimes drowning its beautiful pink blossoms, which flower at the same time.

The Philadelphus is another vigorous grower and it plans world domination each spring. Its woody branches grow to more than twelve feet and scrape the paint from the roof of the shed and the palisade. Its blossom is magnificent and the perfume wonderful, but it has quite a short season and it gets destroyed in the wind. Part of it needs to be cut to the ground each year.

We planted a small Laburnum Watereri Vossii ‘Golden Rain’ as one of our first trees, but it needs to be pruned each year to keep it from outgrowing the garden. Originally we pruned it in late November or early December when it is dormant, but the garden centre recommended waiting until February when the worst of the winter is past so that dead and damaged branches can be easier to identify. Its abundant yellow hanging flowers make it a joy in late May and early June.

Some plants take pruning and cutting without any bother, especially those that can be used as hedges. Our fuchsias, hawthorn, pyracantha, and flowering currants are clipped regularly and are forming a mixed hedge in the front garden.


Hawthorn prunings


Unhappy Acer

I love the idea of a specimen large shrub or small tree in the front garden. We decided that the ideal candidate would be an acer, with delicate foliage from spring to autumn, magnificent autumn colour and an intricate bare shape in winter.

We bought a lovely Japanese Maple Acer palmatum ‘Orange Dream’ with beautifully decorative leaves, their red/orange tips fading to yellow then green, and intense autumn colour. It is small, growing to under five feet, good for a small front space, it is frost hardy in the ground and happy to grow in sun or semi-shade. So far so good.

We planted it confidently in our north-facing front garden. It looked well in the beginning, but it hated the spot, it got cold and shivery from the wind and its lovely red tips got wind burn. We left it for two seasons in the hope that it would acclimatize, but it was so unhappy that we felt bad every time we passed it.

In the winter of the second season we dug it up and transported it carefully to the back garden where we placed it next to the holly. Here in the holly’s strong embrace it is growing happily, sheltered from the cold winds. It is now about eight feet tall as we’ve never pruned it, it brings light to that corner and it is magnificent in the fall.

The front garden location has proved more difficult to find a suitable shrub for. We placed a small crab apple tree there, but in spite of its toughness it was not happy either, so it now resides with the other fruit trees in the back. The Witch Hazel that has been in the space for about eight years seems to be dealing with the uncongenial conditions. It is starkly bare in winter, producing delicate pale yellow flowers in January and February when the rest of the garden looks as if it will never see growth again.