An in between month November , not quite hard winter and still some hardy perennials poking their heads up but counting down the time before the first frosts blackens everything and none more so then my favourite plant , the gunnera .
Not everone’s favourite , the gunnera and not suitable for all gardens as it is huge after a few years in the ground , a monster really which needs space and to be close to water and I have seen garden visitors shudder at the sight of a fully grown gunerra !
I have always loved the plant since I first saw it in the 1970’s in the garden of Jack O’Donnell in Rosslare Strand and Jack kindly let me cut some chunks off the mother plant , it thrived for me then and since but you need to understand it’s needs in that while it soaks up lots of water it’s crown has to be planted on dry ground but near water where the roots can reach out and drink .
We have over twenty clumps of gunnera throughout the garden and each year I add to that number by taking chunks off the established plants and generally it takes up to four years to get established .
Gunnerra dies back messily in late November with the first frosts but there is still beauty in the remains because I cut the huge leaves down and fold them back over the crown of the clumps to protect them , not that they need the protection to come through next April but it tidies the messiness of the huge dead leaves into neat little parcels which in themselves have a nice architectural shape throughout the garden … well I think so anyway and I can almost hear my daughter Claire saying “ if it makes you happy Dad ” !
When I first heard of the daffodil Winston Churchill back in the 1980’s with my first garden in Rosslare I was attracted to it because of the name as I have always admired Churchill and loved his writing however having planted it the daffodil became my favourite large daff as it flowers late , in April , is double flowered white with pinkish tints and unusually for a daffodil has a scent .
It was bred in Holland in 1946 just after the Second World War and named after the former UK PM … I have found it difficult to source but for the last few years my local hardware shop in Clonmel , Bob Fitzgerald’s , has a large basket for sale … odd as they don’t normally sell bulbs and I must ask why of all daffodils they choose Winston Churchill as this name would not be universally popular in Ireland !
Anyway I stock up most winters with this variety from Fitzgerald’s and it is along with Dutch Gold the only large size daffodil I plant and this week I planted up several clumps in the new area in the back garden just behind a series of clumps of the miniature daffodil tete a tete … tete a tete flowers in February and the Winston Churchill will kick in two months later to prolong the flowering in the new bed in the back garden .
Normally bulbs are the last thing I plant in a new area as the clumps take over the best places and it is difficult then to plant your hard landscaping perrenials and shrubs without crunching through the bulbs … better to wait until all your planting is complete then plant the bulbs under or close to the permanent canopy of the shrubs . However for this planting scheme our idea is to have a seating area surrounded by a soft canopy of low growing cottage garden plants and to this end I have carpeted the floor space with the downy evergreen ground cover geraniums , my favourite Biokovo geranium I originally brought back from Croatia and which grows easily from the cuttings I take on a monthly basis all year round .
About fifteen years ago slow release fertilisers , osmocote , came on the market for private growers and I haven’t been without a container of it since … I pop a cap full or two depending on the size of the plant or shrub into each planting hole at the base of the new plant and the theory is that it releases it’s nutrients to the roots on a slow controlled basis spread over six months and I use it for both perennials , trees and shrubs both in the ground or in containers … does it work … all the literature says it does but it would say that wouldn’t it … I honestly don’t know as I never plant anything without it but it makes me feel good that I am giving the best possible start to a new arrival in the garden .
An unsung shrub in the border is the evergreen castor oil plant , Ricinus communis , which if grown in the right place will add a touch of exoticism with it’s large leaves . The right place of course is crucial to the survival of a castor oil plant outside in winter with Irish weather as it is basically an indoor plant here and I find for me it does best , in fact thrives steadily in a shaded place where it can shelter among other shrubs .
It is such an impact shrub that it is worth finding the right place for it but keep it sheltered from winds in dry soil within an established group and it will thrive and after five years or so it can reach two metres in height and width and I try an incorporate it into most new planting areas that offer shade and shelter .
I wrote last month about my first visit back to Bosnia in eighteen years and I am often asked if it was dangerous during my time there immediately after the Bosnian War … I never felt in danger but there were some scary uncomfortable moments .
Most … in fact all of these scary times were while travelling and working in Republika Serpska , the Serb controlled entity in Bosnia as the Serbs felt they had got a bad press from the International Community during the siege of Sarajevo and they were suspicious of those of us visiting there in the first months after the war … Serbs are naturally suspicious anyway but back then they were positively paranoid about us and just didn’t like us being there figuring that all our sympathies were with the Muslims .
I spent twelve years in Bosnia after the war and although in my book the Serbs were responsible for the break up of Bosnia and the civil war that followed I was never blind to the fact that all sides committed war crimes and atrocities and that all sides had psychopaths in their armies and police .
In those early days of March 1996 the Serb cities along the Drina were the worst places for us to go especially Zvornik and Visegrad where the hatred directed in our direction was palpable and it was to Zvornik I went on my first operational visit accompanied by a local team of Aldin, Amira and Mehmed , all Muslim colleagues .
We were staying the night at Hotel Zvornik , a kip of a place which seemed to be the hang out of the local mafia , all gold medallions and moustaches who certainly were not at all interested in a Trip Advisor rating from what they saw as an EU official accompanied by a “ Muslim ” invasion from Sarajevo .
In hindsight of course we should have hot footed it back to Sarajevo but it was a three to four hour trip in darkness over snow and icy terrain on a road that would take us through Srebrenica and none of us fancied being stopped in the darkness by Serb paramilitaries that were operating at night in that area .
We arrived down together to the dining room for dinner having agreed beforehand there was safety in numbers and we would move as a group , all the while being eyed up by the resident Zvronik macho bad guys … a horrible atmosphere in the entire hotel Zvornik but especially in the dining room built out over the Drina river and looking directly across to Serbia … the décor was heavily pre war Yugoslavia with the addition of a neat row of bullet holes stitched into the top of the floor to ceiling window that nobody had bothered to patch up and the Serb waiter didn’t look so great either … he had an attitude that said I know you are from that Muslim loving UN and more or less hissed at us what do you want to order .. I rather timidly asked what was on the menu for that night and looking at my Muslim colleagues Herr Slobodon said in a loud voice MUSKALICA (which is a pork dish ) … Aldin , a real cool guy who is a friend to this day , didn’t miss a beat and said we will all have MUSKALICA … silence all round in the full dining room all watching us … mafia , war criminals you name it they were probably all there that night … when the bowls of muskalica were slapped down in front of us Aldin took up a spoon full and as it reached his lips Ahmed whispered ALDIN IT’S PORK and not missing a beat Aldin stage whispered back EAT IT … saved our lives that night Aldin did and the muskalica tasted great !
Peru Peru Peru , two weeks in November !
For over fifty years since I first read the great history of Peru and the Incas by John Hemmings I have wanted to visit the country and see first hand the great stone blocks the Incas used to build their fabulous palaces and of course to climb to the iconic Machu Picchu .
I had always heard that Peru was one of the last countries where the local people dressed normally in their traditional dress .. normal as in not for the tourist like a lot of countries now … on all counts Peru did not disappoint and totally lived up to expectations .
And Peru is the land of the Llamas , their great go to animal for wool , transport and sometimes food but to see where they live in their natural habitat of the altiplano , the high plains of the Andes at over 14000 feet , is an eye opener … and talk about eye openers the Alpacas a smaller version of the llama are so petite , loveable and huggable that you want to take one home with you !
We also got to see the vicuna in their natural terrain on the high plains where they are rounded up once a year purely for their wool , from the same camelid species as the llama and alpaca and which are never tame , prized for their wool but elusive shy gentle looking animals .
The alpacas are also gentle but nobody ever makes the mistake of thinking the llama is gentle … these guys are big and muscular with an attitude , they eye you up and can delivera kick or spit in an instant if you annoy them … my son Kevin once ran up to one at eight years old in an open zoo with me running behind him saying they spit , they spit Kev … and this one did right in the middle of his forehead and poor Kev’s head vanished in a shower of spit !
A visit to the floating islands of Lake Titicaka was a highlight where the Uros people for hundreds of years have lived on the lake on man made reed squares out on the water , all fastened together and tied to stakes while another stand out was when we drove through the Colcha Canyon over the El Condor Pass at 16,000 feet made famous by Simon & Garfunkel and saw the huge Andean Condors below us fly with their 11 foot wing span .
But when we left Peru it was not primarily the memory for the glorious mountain scenery , the Inca sites , Machu Picchu , that I took away with me but the memory of the extraordinary niceness of the Peruvian people that will remain forever .
That and the fabulous hats the Peruvian ladies wear which are a work of art and social significance in their own right … not forgetting the single plaits they wear and here is a curious thing the ladies of the high Andes never go grey their hair remaining a natural black all their lives .
If you are a bit squeamish or someone who treats guinea pigs as a pet then don’t read the next bit !
Guinea pigs are a big delicacy in Peru , roasted , which is why the cat looks so superior in the picture … and most house in the country raise them … and no I didn’t try them !
And from an Irish point of view as we love spuds … there are over 4000 varieties of potatoes grown in Peru .
I had been warned about altitude sickness in Peru but everyone including my doctor said take a few paracetamol for the invariable headache the first day and you will be grand while others said coca leaves are sold on every corner , suck on these and all will be well … not so and despite ingesting coca leaves in industrial quantities and hoping the drug sniffer dogs weren’t on duty when we arrived back to Dublin Airport , we had a huge problem with the altitude from Day 1 but the tour was designed to give us twelve days in Peru before tackling the 10,000 feet climb to Machu Picchu and we made it !
Going there I had really equated the Incas as the major and most important part of the history of Peru but in reality the Incas only lasted 120 years from 1300 to 1450 when the Spanish conquistadores under Pizarro conquered and subjugated the entire country and the reality was that there were great civilisations in Peru , at least six major ones before the Incas dating back to 1500 BC … but everyone is fixated by the Incas ?
The great Devla Murphy wrote about this in her book “ Eight foot in the Andes ” when she said “ The Incas wished however to seem the sole creators of all worthwhile culture so their propangists manipulate oral history to obliterate all traces of the regional cultures which they had used as their “ foundation stones ”.
Christianity was introduced by the Spaniards and catholicism has been the official religion of Peru for five hundred years but for Peruvians there is a huge attachment to the land and in fact the Incas valued land much more than gold however I sense that just below the surface that belief in Pachamama , the Earth Mother , is still strong and the Church in Peru has been clever about allowing the old beliefs to continue or at least are not banning it and in some valleys the local priest is also a shamen of the old religion .
This is a Wikipedia description of the Quechua people of Peru … could you find people like this anywhere in the world ?
The indigenous Indians of Peru are unique in the modern world. They are uniformly spiritual, uninterested in politics, and loyal to their families; they are not greedy or materialistic; they express themselves in shy smiles and rarely complain.
Machu Picchu of course is one extraordinary highlight for us and we were lucky we got a great day weatherwise so we saw the fabulous lost city of the Incas at it’s best light … almost vertical stone steps of uneven size to 10,000 feet … horrendous effort but worth it when we finally tottered out on the top platform looking out over the royal palace and a view never to be forgotten .
Colour in the Garden in November
Cercis is a beautiful small tree with blue leaves in the Spring and Summer which fade to a gorgeous colour in the Autumn . More commonly known as the Judas Tree as it is supposed to be the tree Judas hung himself from in Jerusalem in remorse after taking the thirty pieces of silver from the Romans for the betrayal of Jesus .
Worth persevering with but it is a fussy tree , slow growing and difficult to get established , needs shelter and a dry soil … needs staking also as it can easily lose branches in the wind .
News Flash from Guinness … You couldn’t make it up and talk about tone deaf !
Guinness made the headlines in Dubai last week with the following announcement
“The Guinness Storehouse has beaten the Grand Canyon, Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal among other iconic attractions to be named ‘World’s Leading Tourist Attraction’ for 2023.
The win was announced last night at a glittering World Travel Awards (WTA) ceremony at the Burj Al Arab in Dubai.”
We are talking about a tourist venue basically promoting a drink of Guinness and which equates a drink to such iconic places as Machu Pichu and the Taj Mahal !
Now I have never drunk a Guinness (and I know that is not normal for an Irishman ) but I have visited both the Taj Mahal and climbed Machu Picchu just two weeks ago and to class either as less a tourist attraction or as iconic as an irish stout beggars belief … has everybody in PR that voted for this gone crazy or is it just PR money talking ?
And this in a week where drink and lots of it including Guinness was a major factor in the death of Shane McGowan who in his own words had been drinking pints since the age of six . McGowan , one of our greatest song writers , who wrote the sublime Fairy Tale of New York and the Broad Majestic Shannon , abused and drank himself to death willingly … while abhorring his lifestyle I always loved McGowan as a singer who fused punk and Irish music and took it away from the beardies and their aran sweaters … and left Irish music in a better state for it . RIP Shane .