Almost drought conditions in Ireland throughout July and all our pots suffered especially those in full sun and even a few days without water while we were away for a week left everything looking pretty limp but quick remedial action with a bucket of water into each pot usually works if you have not been away too long . I hate to see flowers wilting in the heat but we have too many pots to ask neighbours to look after them so they have to take their chances and before I leave I always saturate the pots … Snezana and I water differently as she is mean about watering whereas you really need to keep the hose on the pot until the water runs out and then add some more while she whines in the background !
My gardening likes and design style is all about wild half out of control planting seemingly without order or colour preferences or “ colour wheel ” as the experts like to call it and I am not a fan of control or organised formal order in the garden . Nature does not do order and trees and shrubs thrive beside each other when the conditions are right . My personal style in everyday life is order and tidiness almost to the point of OCD yet in gatdening I have the Dolly Parton attitude to hair “ it costs a lot of money to look this trashy ” !
Wild and out of control are terms that certainly apply to gunnera which are at their best in July and our many clumps of gunnera are the one plant that stops visitors in their tracks with the wow factor ! You need lots of water and a lot of space to grow gunnera and they are not the plant for a small garden , one of my favourite architectural plants and here they grow leaves of up to two metres across … as I said gunnera need water but will do best on dry ground at the edge of water where their roots can reach into the damp soil .
Gunnera always spark debate during our garden tours here at Old Spa Road and people either love them or hate them with no visitor neutral and overall I would say visitors are generally put off by their sheer size and cannot visualise having them in their own gardens but for me it has always been love at first sight where gunneras are concerned .
All that talk about wildness and informality was by way of an introduction and lead in to my praise of the common nasturtium , a bedding annual I use in container planting as it overflows out in every direction with a beautiful tropical lushness … I plant them out at three inches high in early May , they need lots of water , a truly rampant trailing plant that I pop into all of our pots close to the house . You can never keep a nasturtium in check and if planted in the open ground it can romp away up to five metres but I love it’s lushness and if you are that way inclined the flowers and the leaves can be eaten in salads .
I am often asked about lawns and how you keep them weed free and a common bug bear is how to get rid of moss , daisies and clover and my answer is always the same DON’T , you have a choice with grass , you can spend your Spring aerating , scarifying and feeding that green patch or take my attitude if it is green it is fine ! Grass and how good it is depends on the sub soil , how well the drainage is and no amount of primping or money thrown at it will do any good so my view is accept what you have and if it is green just keep it cut .
Anticipation and planning is the key to a succession palate of plants of interest throughout the gardening year so you need to have planted up your preferred structure and colour months in advance and have let them grow on rather than what I see too much of , people filling gaps with immediate garden centre purchases which will be too small in any case to give any real impact and having been forced into bloom anyway by the growers to satisfy public demand will only last a limited time .
A garden note book is essential to planning where you add reminders for plants and shrubs you like now FOR NEXT YEAR as you will forget and next year wonder why you didn’t plant more nasturtiums AGAIN !
Water plants need to be controlled in July especially the invasive types such as parrot feather and every few months I have to spend an afternoon ripping it out in the Lower Wood area where it has taken hold in deep water that I can’t wade into or reach with a spray can .
That is the way it is with plants , a feast or a famine and it is difficult to get the balance right between normal growth and invasive and while I love exuberant type growth the tipping point for me is when one plant swamps and totally hides it’s neighbours .
Above all I love reliable plants that do well in all conditions , sun or shade and that come back every year no matter what ruthless pruning you throw at them … do such plants exist I hear you say … and yes they do with hypericum and alchemis mollis leading the way .
Hypericum is an evergreen shrub which can grow to two metres and which you can cut back hard every year but it’s most famous version is the variety Hidcote which is a compact size and easier to accommodate into a small garden . Hypericum does best in dryish soil and will carry golden flowers for five months , it will self seed freely and you can pot up the seedlings and get plants for free and I would class hypericum as fool proof .
I use hypericum as a filler shrub in borders and tuck it into all sorts of corners as a small plant where you can forget about it for a year or two and suddenly you come across it again and it has filled out into an impressive structural plant ad I tend to use alchemis mollis in the same way along the front of borders where it will happily thrive in all sorts of conditions and give nothing but pleasure in return for an annual shearing after flowering .
Alchemis mollis , known as Lady’s Mantle , is probably the best self seeder in the garden , evergreen , it pops up everywhere and will grow in any location but is especially good in semi shade where it’s golden flower sprays will brighten up any corner and it is my go to plant for the front of any new bed … plant one alchemis mollis and you will never be without it and to see it in early morning when water droplets are back lit and cradled in it’s leaves is an uplifting sight .
Because I suppose they are so easy to grow and so commonplace neither plant is considered sexy or valued which is a great pity in my view and certainly here with us both hypericum and alchemis mollis are highly appreciated and valued .
Most gardeners would include hydrangeas in their list of reliables as they seem to thrive in neglected corners and my Mother grew a magnificent one in Barron Park where it’s only nourishment was a bucket of ash from the coal fire in winter … hydrangeas are now a shrub much cossetted by gardeners who love the modern varieties such as the huge Annabelle and Limelight flower heads but I have never been good with them although we have seemingly the perfect soil for them here which is shade and dampish and I do envy my gardening friends all who seem to have rows of glorious hydranges in full bloom at this time of year .
However I have ONE hydrangea that is the envy of my gardening friends , one which thrives every year and from which I have to supply lots of cuttings to friends who want to replicate it in their gardens and ironically I only grew it in the beginning for it’s purple / black stems which almost glow in winter . I don’t know it’s name but it has stunning flat head blue flowers which is what all our visitors rave about but for all the cuttings I give away , none reproduces the blue flowers and obviously the colour of the flowers are influenced by the soil in that area of the Lower Wood which has a lot of copper in the wettish conditions and my friends gardens are usually on good soil where the cuttings sulk and produce ordinary colours … actually I feel quite smug about that as while you want the cutting to thrive for others but you secretly want the plant to perform only for YOU !
Which reminds me of one of my favourite writers , Gore Vidal , who was famously bitchy and the title of a recent biography about him by Jay Parini summed him up perfectly “ Every time one of my friends succeeds something inside of me dies ” !!
It is a unique hydrangea and a few years ago a Dublin based photographer visited the garden here to take some general garden photos for a magazine article and I gave him the guided tour where he took all the stock photos you would expect with polite murmurs of appreciations of the wildness , the colours , but when he came across this hydrangea he lost all the cool and became hugely engrossed , setting up tripods , light umbrellas , various lenses … and spent an entire four hours photographing this one hydrangea with me ferrying cups of coffee down to him at intervals as he was totally engrossed in getting that one shot and again it was the colour of the flower that fascinated him … he got a nice artistic result but for me it is still the purple stem in winter that fascinates !
Ukraine memories for Snezana
The obscene war that Putin has caused in Ukraine shows no sign of letting up and I don’t know how the average Russian can sleep easy at night knowing the suffering and loss that is being caused on a daily basis in their name .
Snezana worked for one year in Kherson and three years in Mariopol travelling daily across the front lines as a Team Leader with the OSCE Mission to Eastern Ukraine monitoring the cease fire and at that time no one had heard about those cities but now they are as famous as Stalingrad and Leningrad were in in the Second World War .
She never discussed with me the danger she was in Eastern Ukraine as she knew I would have insisted that the job was not worth life and limb and while I knew she was being paid a UN daily danger money rate I did not realise the extent of the risk however over dinner last week with my son , a military man , she told us about an incident that showed how lucky she was to come home in one piece .
Her team of five in full body armour , with an American and Russian military officer and an army medic on board their armoured vehicle were on a patrol outside Mariopol in a No Mans Land area … a tense situation inside the vehicle as they were gathering information on shell craters and the various militias positions between the Russian and Ukrainian lines and it was about to get even more tense .
Their vehicle was prevented crossing back into Ukrainian territory at a make shift crossing point where they were confronted by a Donetsk separatist militia guy , nineteen years old in shorts and flip flops who was shouting and out of control on drugs or drink … worse he was standing on the back of a home made pick up trailer with his finger trembling on a mounted huge calibre anti aircraft type cannon which was aimed directly at their car from a distance of five metres … Snezana in the front seat asked her driver , an Austrian military officer “ will we be protected in this vehicle ” to be told very quietly that the rounds would cut them in two and that “ we are dead if he shoots ” .
She decided that if they were to die she would prefer to be outside the car and got out and approached the separatist who by now was incoherently shouting at them and aiming the gun on the front driver’s seat … she explained that they were there at this crossing point by permission and nothing would be solved by shooting them when suddenly he shouted to get back in the car and drive before he changed his mind .
What changed his mind about shooting up the OSCE patrol ? Snezana who is an Orthodox Christian was wearing outside her uniform a Byzantine Orthodox Cross and most likely the Orthodox Russian separatist recognised a fellow religionist and let them go .
A week after she left Mariopol for good in 2017 Snezana’s team drove over a land mine in the buffer zone between Russian and Ukrainian forces , the armoured vehicle was destroyed , all the team were badly injured and their medic was killed .