My Gardening Month December 2023 … Hello 2024 , Happy New Year , Sretna Nova Godina !

December of course is so busy for most people with family , visitors , food preparation enough for three sieges , effing and blinding because the Christmas Tree lights won’t work and the generally bad weather that hardly any work gets done in the garden and of course it is a good month to take off out there as basically everything is dormant and even gardens need a rest !

I often tell visitors to the garden that our garden would have a different design if we didn’t have deer traipsing through it every day and taking a bite out of anything that takes their fancy be it trees , shrubs or hostas and certainly in the Lower Field woodland we would have a lot more acers and silver birch but time has shown us that any new tree planted there is fair game .

A Jeremy Clarkson article  in the Sunday Times last week stated  “ You have the problems caused by Bambi it is reckoned we now have over two million deer in Britain and they do more damage to our woodland than ash dieback , canker , the horse chestnut leaf miner and Dutch Elm desease combined “. Figures from Scotland suggest that deer could be damaging 150 million young trees every year ” .

The nicest plants are sometimes the ones that have been around from our grand parents time and none better in my view than the plain cowslip or primula and I always buy in a tray from Clonmel Garden Centre each October and plant into pots near the front door and around the front garden , somewhere you will pass on a regular basis … the breeders have hybridised the hell out of the variety and they are available in all sorts of garish colour if that does it for you but for me you can’t beat the original humble yellow flowered cowslip and this one at the front door has been flowering non stop since October and will continue to do so until late March and when the cowslip has finished flowering in the pots I transfer them to open soil in shady spots around the garden and some you lose but the odd one comes back next year but at one euro per single plant one can’t complain .  

Primula or cowslip , Front Door , 20th December 2023

Another plant that I wouldn’t be without in the dark days of winter is the ground cover vinca which will flower from late November without fail right through to the end of March . Our grannies called it periwinckle and there are two versions , vinca minor or major and this bit of latin apart from showing off on my part refers to the size of the leaves and I prefer vinca minor but both versions are a bit of a thug in covering space so plant them in a place you are not too worried about them taking over , shady or light positions doesen’t bother them as long as it is dry , in fact they prefer it and they will romp away , flowering their socks off  .

Snezana in preparing the new area in the back garden was not too particular in hacking into the clumps of vinca in that area but you can’t kill vinca and it is tenacious like ivy … thankfully it is now making a come back and this week I planted some alliums amongst it and the blue globe flowers of the allium will lift above the vinca in May and make a nice contrast .

Gardener’s World magazine describes vinca “ The lesser periwinkle, Vinca minor, has the reputation for being a bit of a thug in a border. But if you’ve got a tricky area to cover – such as dry shade – this can be a useful plant. It’s evergreen and grows fast, and bears pretty blue or purple flowers in spring and summer. Periwinkle grows in virtually any soil or aspect.”

Vinca , Lower Wood , 24th December 2023

While I am on the subject of winter plants don’t forget the hellebore , a perennial which will flower right through Christmas to early Spring and again not a fussy plant and it also prefers some shade and dry soil . With hellebores though the hybrid breeders have again gone crazy in a bid to get the zingiest colour flowers as that is what attracts shoppers in the garden centres but for me who considers flowers just a bonus I go for the common variety agustofolia which has a gorgeous all year round olive green leaf and the flowers on this variety are a soft yellow to olive colour … because the shoppers prefer garish flowers the little augustofolias are rarely stocked but if you come on them on the garden centre as I did last week then snap them up .

Hellebore Augustifolia , Front Garden , 27th December 2023

I use hellebores a lot in pots where it will add colour through the Winter both with flowers and foliage , a reliable and unfussy plant where you just cut the stalks back in the Summer as hard as you like .

Also because nowadays it is hit and miss with the garden centres as to what is available in the Dutch nurseries you really need to visit your local garden centre on a regular basis to see what has arrived on the shelves … I found seven augustofolio in small pots at Clonmel Garden Centre last week together with a selection of elephant garlic and allium bulbs which were on a half price sale as the optimum planting season is almost over … as long as the bulbs are not softish you can plant right up to the end of January and get away with it and while not to be recommended , if you see a bargain it is worth having a go as OK they will flower a little later next Spring but they will be perfectly fine next year .

Hellebore , Augustifolia , ready for planting , 18th December 2023

While trawling through the garden centre I always check the bargain basement section for unloved specimens where you can find perfectly good plants for knock down prices and this coupled with planting bare rooted trees and shrubs in Winter means you don’t have to fork out a fortune to stock the garden …this next photo shows where a few years ago I added a mixture of shrubs to a boundary fence with our neighbour where the soil is not great being heavy and dry but the bamboo and two types of laurel were all bare rooted bargain basement shrubs from the garden centre which although small and miserable looking when they were planted , have now thickened out into a fine screen .

Front Garden boundary , 27th December 2023

No matter how nice Christmas is there is no denying  Winter and late December in particular is a  dismal time in the garden especially when we have only about six hours of real day light and I can see how people get depression or light deprivation in December / January  .

It can take a real kick to get me out in the garden at this time but I try and do it and aim for at least  upwards of an hour each day where I take a secateurs and heavy duty gloves on my walk around just to feel it is not an aimless stroll and there is always a bramble or a branch of a shrub that needs attention .

There is a huge feel good factor at just making the effort and sometimes like today you come across something that gives a lift like the furze bush that bloomed a few strands or coming across a clump of flowering vinca or the little water hens that stopped clucking when I walked into them in the water area and then hunkered down real quiet thinking I hadn’t seen them but I had and I watched them for a few minutes before they realised I was watching and they floated gently away … it was worth forcing myself out just to see them .

The Elders of Clonmel book is on it’s fourth printing since the release date in late September and is I believe very popular as a Christmas gift for Clonmel people living away from their town and I was delighted to be a part of it .

Hickey’s Bakery , Clonmel , my fabulous local bakery , 18th December 2023

The time of year that is in it

The end of December is not a happy period for either the people of Gaza or the Israeli people both of whom have and are suffering and all in the name of a common God from the Old Testament , may it end soon in an acceptable manner for both sets of people.

The War in Ukraine is almost two years old now and little did we think we would ever see a full scale war in Europe again and it is time for both sides to start a negotiated peace … it will be a win win for Russia though as there is no way it will have to give up what it has seized in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine … with that result and all the useless rhetoric from the EU and the US you have to feel sorry for the ordinary people of Ukraine who have lost so much .

For fourteen years I worked in the Balkans , another area torn apart by the religious wars of the Serbs , Croats and Muslims .

We in Western Europe live a sheltered existence , it has never been like that in the Balkans where losing everything and being ethnically cleansed from their area is a fact of life where you are given 20 minutes to pack one suitcase per family member … what do you pack in such a situation I asked one young girl in our office in Sarajevo whose Bosnian Muslim family was expelled from Capjlina in Southern Bosnia by Bosnian Croats… “passports , education and birth certificates that you need to start a life somewhere else , family photos , a few treasured CD’s and your best jacket and it is then downstairs into a waiting truck full of your neighbours from the apartment block and as you leave the area another truck is arriving bringing similarly expelled Bosnian Croat refugees each also with one suitcase who will then move into your apartment ” .

I came to live in Sarajevo just two months after the siege was lifted in March 1996 and although daily life quickly got back to normal , for years afterwards you could see the strain  in people’s faces but Balkan people are resilient and stoical, they have suffering in their DNA going back centuries and for them the enemy footsteps are always just the other side of the hill .

Bosnian experiences from my Diary 1996

A Bosnian Muslim Family , Eastern Bosnia , 12th October 2005

There has been distrust between Serbs and Muslims along the Drina river in Eastern Bosnia since Ottoman times in the 15th century and putting it bluntly they hate each other there . Once in 1996 when driving back from Gorazde I was flagged down by a frantic Bosnian Serb minibus driver who had taken a wrong turning with a coach load of terrified Serb kids returning from a chess tournament and was now by mistake in the Bosnian  Muslim controlled area just outside the city and fearing an attack begged me as an international in a vehicle with diplomatic plates to shepherd the coach through to the Serb area … things have improved a lot since then and there is complete freedom of movement now throughout Bosnia … but the fear and distrust remains and is never far from the surface which of course is encouraged by the three main Serb , Croat and Muslim nationalistic parties as an integrated united country is the last thing the self serving politicians of Bosnia want .

A week later I had to drive from Sarajevo to the Republika Srpska and visit Foca about sixty miles away where a few months before NATO had bombed the five bridges there over the Drina in September 1995 and an hour into the journey , parked beside the road was a car with a group of people all waving me down . The group were all one Serb family with the Mother , Father , Grandfather and two kids all frantic with worry as they had broken down on a Muslim controlled stretch of the road and felt sure they were all going to be killed and would I take them to their house about ten miles  back . I got them all into the Nissan Patrol and drove to their house and on the way they explained that they were driving to visit their son who was in university in Foca and whom because of the recent cease fire they hadn’t seen for three months … reaching their farmhouse with  typical Bosnian hospitality I was invited in for coffee and inside the house the Mother immediately busied herself laying out cups and plates while the Grandmother took wrapped parcels out of a big bag they had carried from their car and I saw smoked ham being unwrapped along with assorted cakes and I knew immediately they had been bringing this bag full of home cooked goodies for their son and I insisted they repack everything and I would drive them to Foca to deliver the bag to the son .

When we reached Foca , a fairly large town with a huge student population , it turned out that due to the war they hadn’t been in contact with their son for three months and apart from going to the university campus and asking for him they had no plan but of course this being a Sunday the lad was in town so we headed into Foca where I parked myself in a coffee shop while they split up and walked the streets for three  hours until they found him and a beaming 19 year old medical student was proudly brought over and introduced … such belief in faith and an attitude that it will be all right on the night could only happen in Bosnia !

On patrol in Eastern Bosnia near the border with Serbia , November 1999

On the journey back we were all feeling good , the family had met and delivered their gifts to the son they hadn’t seen in months and I was thinking about about my own Mam and how similar we all were , Bosnians , Irish , mothers everywhere when suddenly the Serb Mother in the front seat beside me asked me where I lived in Sarajevo and when I said near Kosovo Stadium she recoiled in shock and said “ you live with the Muslims , how can you do that , they smell ” and it was now my turn to recoil in shock … the Nissan went silent and of course the Mother realised she had got too familiar and open with a foreigner  … we drove along in silent depression for a few miles and then the Mother said that we had just passed her brother’s house and I politely asked how he was … “ killed a few weeks ago , shot in the head by a Mulsim sniper while digging the garden ” and as I digested the awfulness of this information she pointed out another brother’s house and again I asked about him … “ Had his throat cut by Muslims when he went back secretly to see his apartment in Sarajevo six months ago ” .

The Serb family and I parted as friends that Sunday evening twenty seven years ago and every now and again I think of the Mother’s predjudice  and her racist remarks and wonder if my two brothers or sons had been murdered in their own homes like hers were how I would regard their killer’s background . 

Peru in November

Looking back on my writing last Month on our November trip to Peru I realise that I was so carried away with the Llamas, Alpacas , the mountain passes  and the niceness of the people that I neglected any description about the Inca palaces and fortresses that Peru is justly famous for .

Snezana and a traditional big hatted lady , Lake Titicaka , Peru , 16th November 2023

Visitors to the sites or even those who only see photographs are amazed at the size of the building rocks used , some up to 200 tons weight and how they were raised into position not to mention how they were transported long distances from the original quarries .

Sacsayhuaman , Inca Fortress , Peru , 15th November 2023

To see them at last in situ like we did is just mind boggling and you are almost tempted to believe in conspiracy theorists that the Inca stone palaces were built by aliens or supreme beings from outer space and not by normal 15th century people living in Peru !

What we forget is the sheer amount of workers maybe up to twenty thousand people that would be called up by the Inca Emperor to work on the projects and who would spend perhaps twenty years working on each site .

The three greatest sites are Sacsayhuaman , Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu  , I have been looking at photographs of all three sites over the past forty years but seeing them in person and reaching out to touch them was just magical for me .

Sacsayhuaman , Inca Fortress , Peru , 15th November 2023
Ollantaytambo Inca Fortress , 16th November 2023
Ollantaytambo ,Temple of the Sun , Peru , 16th November 2023

The first two sites above are defensive macho fortresses and when you see them each situated on low hills dominating the valley below you are in no doubt these were built for war … Machu Picchu however was a private place , a spa if you like , to be enjoyed as a retreat for the Inca Royal Family .

Machu Picchu is fluffy , a fairy tale looking site , a sort of modern day Balmoral and there is nothing defensive or military about it , it’s remote location on a plateau below a  peak at 10,000 feet was it’s protection and it was isolated from the World for over four hundred years .

Nothing fluffy about Sacsayhuaman or Ollantaytambo and both are seriously aggressive and imposing battlements , a huge contrast with Machu Picchu and you know that with these sites the views are not important and that what was important was that they allowed you to kill large numbers of an attacking army .

Ollantaytambo Inca Fortress , Peru , 16th November 2023

You come away from both these sites seriously impressed knowing that battle hardened warriors lived here but you fall in love with Machu Picchu and know it must have been a great place to hang out with your family and friends … just you and other royals , paparazzi and common people kept firmly out !

Machu Picchu , 17th November 2023

Kay Burley the Sky News presnter was in Peru recently and wrote about it in the London Times with this story of how mispronunciations in a foreign language can confuse !

“ I learnt a number of life lessons on the four-day trek along the fabled Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, not least the importance of pronouncing the sacred site correctly. “Machu-Pick-Chew” means “old mountain”; “Machu-Pea-Shew” translates to “old penis”, which can be very entertaining for the trek porters when western tourists — and I confess I was among that number — haven’t done their homework.”

Not as uncommon as you might think and in my first six months in Bosnia I was happily mangling the local language by introducing myself at meetings as Medunarodne Czarina which means International Customs but sadly not the way I pronounced it until a wise soul took me aside and advised that my pronunciation of Czarina as Carina meant I was introducing myself as International Pussy ??

Colour in the garden in December … very little but this mahonia , variety Charity, is blooming away and the last dying leaves of Autumn brighten up the Lower Wood area .

Mahonia , Charity , Front Garden , 25th December 2023
The last leaves of Autumn in the Lower Wood

December though sees the shortest day of the year on the 21st and from now on it is onwards and upwards to longer evenings and new growth and from January , batteries recharged we are all ready to go again .

Happy New Year to everyone or as they say in my favourite place , the Former Yugoslavia … Sretna Nova Godina !

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