May in Ireland this year never really arrived with a lot of rain throughout the month and this suited me as I had planted out hundreds of rooted slips and cuttings in the new water area I have been working on since last October and they needed moisture plus a little bit of heat to take root .
Speaking of arrivals two of my grand kids visited last week and I brought Marko and Mile down to see my new Zen rock installation where I planned to fondly explain to the seven and ten year old the tranquility and appreciation that Zen teachings brought to that area of the garden … Zen my pretensious arse as with delighted shrieks all they saw was a bunch of old rocks to jump over !
During lockdown this past year internet gardening forums are full of anxious budding gardeners sending in photos of some plant or other that has just popped up and asking questions trying to identify whether it is a plant or a weed that they should dig up .
I grow several of what would be classed as weeds , well grow is the wrong word as I just leave them untouched where they grow such as hogsweed and the giant hogsweed , not a pretty name for sure and there is a problem with blisters on the skin if you cut it in bloom however they are spectacular architectural plants . The common hogsweed has great sprays of white flowers whereas the giant variety is rare but I got a seedling from a friend which has thrived in our wet conditions here . Easily controlled in early Spring and if you can get over the fact that you are encouraging a weed hated by some people , it is magnificent and jaw dropping when you come across it in the garden at two metres in height with metre wide leaves . I also let clumps of nettles grow in selected spots which also look great if you can get over the fact that most people hate them because of their sting but butterflies love them and they make a great soup … also a great foliar plant fertiliser which you make by filling a bucket with chopped up nettles covered with water that you leave for eight weeks and then drain off the liquid into bottles which you can then use diluted on your plants by adding a cap full to a litre of water , if dedicated to making foliar fertiliser comfrey is the best plant to use but nettles are easier to come by .
In gardening as in life don’t be ruled by convention and if you like the look of a so called weed then go for it and I often think that if people from a country that doesen’t have nettles or docks as a species saw both they would think that they are wonderful structural plants and they are … although I draw the line at allowing docks to flourish in our garden but still they are a great plant to look at if we could only get it out of our DNA that they are a spreading plague if uncontrolled with seeds that can remain dormant in the ground for up to eighty years .
I love self seeding plants of all kinds as first of all it is great that the original plant feels so at home in the garden and the conditions we have created for it that it will throw out it’s seedlings and secondly it gives you plants for free that you can stick in all over the garden and as they are free you can be a bit adventurous in where you plant them as you are not taking a risk on a plant costing upwards of 8 euros in the garden centre .
A top self seeder is alchemis mollis , also known as Lady’s Mantle , as old fashioned a cottage garden plant as they come , grown by our Grannies and Grand Grannies !
In the Middle Ages alchemists or chemists as they would be known in modern times were always searching for the elusive elixir that they thought would turn base metal into gold and alchemis mollis was thought to produce pure water for use in the process hence the name . It has a beautiful serrated olive green leaf which collects early morning dew that glistens , a gorgeous perennial that I wouldn’t be without . It will grow happily in sun or shade and has great sprays of golden flowers in summer and self seeds everywhere especially in gravel and I lift and transfer over fifty plants each Spring to different areas of the garden .
Two other prolific self seeders in this garden are euphorbia and erigeron and these will lodge and grow from a crack in cement , in gravel or between paving slabs . Euphorbia especially the variety wulfeni characais is a spectacular architectural plant which is evergreen and has the extra bonus of fabulous yellow flower bracts from March onwards and it has been a favourite plant of mine for forty years and I have never had to buy one in forty years either as I dig up it’s seedlings all through the year and always have euphorbias growing on in pots .
Erigeron is a member of the daisy family also known as fleabane as in older times it was supposed to help against fleas in the home back when the farm animals would be kept in buildings either in the house or attached to it . I am a recent convert to erigeron since I first saw it for sale three years ago and it is a terrific plant for flowering from April to November and is another that will seed even in cement but it especially loves to seed into bricks or stone walls and I never cease to be amazed at the tenacity to survive that these type of plants have .
The irony is that self seeders are better growing plants as they have had to fight to get this far and your garden centre bought plant will often sulk in it’s planted position and won’t thrive no matter how much attention and cossetting it gets … we are always told as children if you don’t succeed try and try again … my experience with plants is if not thriving after a year move it to another location and often just moving a plant a metre away will work as the plant could have been in a wind channel or a patch of soil that just didn’t suit and I have often moved plants , trees and shrub several times to new locations before they rocketed off .
I also gather plants from the wild such as ferns and also plants that are considered out and out weeds such as butterbur or winter heliotrope which is great for colonising a piece of rough ground but it is invasive and not only that but because it spreads through underground rhizomes it will smother any other plant in it’s way with it’s thick canopy of leaves so you need to be careful where you introduce it . I love the butterbur with it’s thick green oval shaped leaves and have it growing in several problem areas where the ground is heavy and dry but as I have said be careful with it .
My planting emphasis for the past two months has been the new water area we dug out and the new paths laid around it which has left a large area under the shade of conifers . The soil varies as it is moist closer to the water which is great for hostas but under the trees it is very dry and does not give a lot of scope for planting and I have been concentrating on ground cover such as lamium , geranium and ferns , all of which I am sourcing from other parts of the garden and the ambition is to have no earth showing by the end of Summer and to have achieved a good ground cover of plants . I am visiting Clonmel Garden Centre on a weekly basis to see if anything comes in that would suit the new area and today I bought plants new to me , woodruff gallium odoratum , which is a sweet smelling low growing herb that thrives in shade and moist conditions and which is good for ground cover .
Looking for woodruff on Google up came an article from the Guardian … their garden writers are superb and the Guardian gardening section site is one I can really recommend … what they said about the woodruff is music to my ears “ Sweet woodruff is a mythical thug for a shady spot where it can spread and display its fragrant white flowers in spring .”
I have always loved the word “thug ” when applied to plants and their next quote is really good “ If plants that spread bring you out in a cold sweat this is probably best avoided ” … what’s not to like ?!!
I looked up Beth Chatto in her book The Shade Garden , she describes woodruff as “one of the prettiest of the ground covering plants ” but also goes on to say “it colonises any piece of bare shady soil with wiry underground rhizomes so must be watched where space is limited or where it might overrun fragile neighbours ” .
Beth Chatto , the UK garden writers , who died two years ago , has over a long career written the finest series of garden books of any writer and she devoted entire books to specialised locations … The Dry Garden , the Damp Garden , The Gravel Garden , The Shade Garden … a brilliant and interesting writer and these books should be on any gardener’s book shelf even today in the age of Google and I have been a fan since I first read the Damp Garden forty years ago . Beth Chatto’s books are never out of print and the latest reprint of her “ Garden Notebook ” which is a compilation of notes she wrote for herself daily throughout her gardening career carries some interesting reviews such as from the UK Telegraph which says “ compulsive reading . Once you have it , don’t let anyone else borrow it ” while Monty Don writes “ I return to Beth Chatto’s books constantly . For those who are new to her work , you are entering into a life – long relationship with a wise friend and gardener ”.
It was a race to get all the plant cuttings into the open ground before the end of May as from then on there is little chance they will take direct planting and will need to be potted up first for about six weeks . At the moment it looks like a good success rate with the slips of geranium , lamium and alchemis mollis and in November I will then plant the new area with spring flowering bulbs such as dwarf daffodils and tulips and this is the process I follow with all new planting areas which is to leave bulb planting until last when the major plant structure is in and where the new bulbs can be slotted in between plants .
In planning a garden or designing any new section it is best to leave paths and bulb planting until last as this leaves you a free hand with planting framework shrubs or perennial and prevents that awful feeling (and sound !) when you drive a spade through an established group of bulbs .
Colour in the Garden in May 2021
Over a few years of growth a garden will be transformed and here are two photgraphs of the front garden taken fifteen years apart .
Now is probably a good time to explain the difference between the terms “self seeders ”and “invasive” that are often used in gardening books and magazines for various plants . A self seeder is easy to contain and easily taken out if it is in the wrong location for you but invasive means that the plant will actually take over an area and overwhelm any plant in it’s path so invasive plants are best planted where there is little competition or where you are happy that the plant will take over that area completely but in my view invasive plants are not for the small garden .
Another gardening term that is misused is “low maintenance” which is fine if you want the supermarket car park look with gravel laid over a weed suppressing membrane cover and a few box balls and viburnum davidii dotted around … OK for sure if you like that sort of thing but DULL … otherwise all gardens need attention and work . Gardening in itself is imposing order on nature and nature will quickly take back any piece of ground left unattended . Most of our work here is maintenance be it weeding on a commercial scale , cutting back trees and shrubs or cutting grass , it is a never ending cycle all year round . In the early days here I thought I would cut the grass with a push mower as I could collect the grass clippings to use as a mulch among the shrubs and I was by now retired with lots of time available and the exercise would be good … good luck with that as with nearly eight acres and a lot of grass it took twelve hours a week to just cut the grass and apart from the exercise in walking behind the mower and emptying the grass box every 40 metres or so it was just so BORING and after five years I got a ride on mower and now ten years later it takes three to four hours to cut the grass all in one go .
However I still find grass cutting boring even from a ride on mower and I generally only cut grass for an hour at a time unless under weather pressure or garden visits when you need to have the garden looking well but there is a bonus in that sitting up on the ride on is a great way for noticing what garden jobs need doing be it weeding , pruning or cleaning out the growth along the water areas .
My take on grass is that if it is green it is grand , we are not talking pristine rolling swards of perfect wimbledon like greenery in this garden … we use a hard working grass seed mix when sowing with lawns spread in sections over almost eight acres of uneven ground . Our grass is pretty common with lots of moss , clover , daisies and buttercup and neither of us is too fussed about it but it needs to be cut every week during the growing season as with the moist soil and Irish rain , growth is luxurious … I use a mulching mower as collecting and dumping grass clippings is a pain with such a large area and adds to the cutting time but of course mulching imbeds the clippings in the ground which constantly fertilises the grass so that during June to July the growth is jumping out of the ground and the mower is in action every third day in one section or another just to keep up .
I do admire lovely lawns though whenever I come across them and I appreciate the work that goes into keeping them like that with regular feeding , scarifying and top dressing the grass with peat in Spring , sowing with the finest quality grass seed and declaring total war on every weed or daisy but we would need regular help here to do that and I have enough on my plate keeping an eye on the other gardener here and stopping her going feral with the chain saw !
The current trend in gardening these days is NOT to mow grass at all and to allow it to grow wild and the statistics are amazing in Ireland and the UK as to just how much wild flower meadows could be created annually by not cutting the lawns in front gardens as 97 % of wild flower meadows have been lost since the Second World War . I was never a fan of leaving lawns uncut however this past year of lock down I am shifting to the view that just cutting a two metre path and leaving the rest go wild can look really good … mind you I am not about to do it here apart from a small patch in the lower field but definitely not ruling it out in the future .
For the past few months I have been including diary excerpts from my fifteen year period as an EU customs advisor in the Balkans so for a change this month I am highlighting my time as a customs officer in Ireland .
Back in 1993 I wrote a series of articles for the Irish Custom Journal titled “ My early life in Customs ” where I looked back at incidents and the various characters met during an almost thirty year career with the Irish Revenue Commissioners and where when first published I learned that some people as they grow older and more dignified can lose their sense of humour ! One of the stories that didn’t make it into the articles was about the time I was being trained in mobile border enforcement … and there could not have been a more dangerous place to learn about anti smuggling than during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the late 1960’s .
We were an eight man patrol team at 2 am one February waiting on the Monaghan / Fermanagh border near Crossmaglen for a pig smuggling gang to try and jump across the border into the South , the information was good and all we had to do was be in position with two patrol cars just down the hill on the unapproved road where the pig lorry would arrive .
As the junior member of the team nobody had told me that one officer in uniform armed with a torch and a walkie talkie would have to stand alone just at the border line a half a mile away from the rest of the teams as legally the smuggler had to be given an opportunity to declare the consignment and my instructions were when I saw a truck heading up the hill from the northern side of the border I was to step into the middle of the road and signal with the torch and of course that would be a signal for the smuggler to accelerate and drive at me … at which point all revenue legalities observed I would step back and let him pass , THEY NEVER STOP, and I would then immediately call the teams below on the radio and they would form a road block with the cars , stop the lorry , seize the consignment , job done , easy peasy or so as it was told to me .
I was up there on my own in total bandit country for almost an hour , freezing February conditions and of course no other soul on the unapproved road when the call came through on the radio to come down , nothing was moving that night when just then to my horror I saw truck lights racing towards me from the Crossmaglen side so I flick on my light and wave gently at the truck and stepped back waiting for him to race past .
To my horror the lorry stopped about ten metres down the road and then reversed back to me and as the drivers window wound down I saw four armed bearded desperados regarding me with great interest … where are you from says desperado No. 1 … Tipp – Tipp – Tipperary I managed to get out … and what the fuck are you doing out here at 3 in the morning … my stammer got worse but I managed to croak out you were not supposed to stop … so here is what you are going to do he says , you are going to throw that radio as far across the field as you can and then you are to make your way slowly back to the customs cars and if there is as much as a peep out of you we will be back … the lorry sped off down the hill and drove at 90 miles an hour past our guys who were sipping coffee inside the cars dumbfounded … nothing very much was said in the patrol car on the way back to the station and it was just my luck that I met the only inquisitive smuggler in Northern Ireland !
Thankfully as a career civil servant I spent most of my Irish Customs life away from the border area and desperados but then almost thirty years later far from the Femanagh border In 1993 I spent a period with the Dutch Customs Service on secondment from Irish Customs when I served on the Dutch Customs patrol boat , the Alexander Gogel . The Dutch officers were armed and after a weapons training course I was issued a weber hand gun and found myself at 2 am that September as part of a five man team legs astride on what looked like a banana boat as tail end charlie each holding on to the guy in front heading across the North Sea to intercept a suspected drug smuggling ship travelling at speed into our sector . The Alexander Gogel hailed the drug boat through a loudspeaker to stop and be boarded and we climbed on deck with a rope ladder thrown on board by the Team Leader to be greeted by an eerie silence and weapons drawn the team prepared to go downstairs while I was detailed to guard the top of the stairs , gun drawn with instructions that if shooting broke out downstairs and if anyone not a member of our team came up the stairs ” shoot him ” .
Again when being seconded no one had told me (a) that I would be carrying a weapon and (b) I might have to shoot someone …. happilly the drug smugglers surrendered without any resistance and soon I was on my way with the team back to the customs mother ship !
An Irish Customs Officer in Holland in 1993