February so far has been cold and overcast here at Old Spa Road but one morning the sun shone … briefly … in the Conifer Wood .
A question most gardeners ask themselves , especially at this time of year in cold , dark,wet February days , is why do I garden ??
Clinically mad is one answer , joking of course but you get the point .
Thomas Rainer , a US landscape architect based in Washington , describes himself in his CV as “ architect by profession , gardener by obsession ” which about sums it up and he has written which is for me the best definition of what gardening can provide … “ great planting design is nostalgic. By that, I mean that the goal of planting in gardens is to remind us of a larger moment in nature. When a moment in the garden is reminiscent of some larger landscape, when a group of plants makes you feel like walking through a meadow, or hiking through a dark forest, or entering into a woodland glade, then you have created an emotional experience. And that, to me, is the essential skill of planting design: to know how to arrange plants in ways that evokes our memory of nature ” .
I would add to the nostalgia theme by saying that gardens for most of us can also strongly remind us of childhood moments and I can never look at rhubarb without thinking of how my Mother used to cover the rhubarb patch with ash from the fire throughout the winter months …. I still do it to this day .
I am sure my own four kids will back me up on that from their own memories of growing up in Rosslare with a gardening Dad …… most likely though knowing their jaundiced view of gardening they will only remember shouts of ” get off the lawn with that football ” !
My own personal experience is that we garden because it is an obsession and even the smallest of outdoor spaces can be gardened and provide hours of enjoyment .. where there is a will there is a way and I remember during my thirteen years renting apartments throughout the Balkans I always tried for a place with at least a balcony where I assembled a large collection of plants in pots of all shapes and sizes , all of which travelled with me to my next posting … curiously enough the only place I didn’t garden was during my two years in the Seychelles Islands as out there the entire environment is a Garden of Eden and you are never more than three metres from nature !
Speaking of obsessions for the past two weeks I have been clearing brambles from a 400 square metre patch in the lower field which began as a small area but which I have now expanded to clear the entire area as I like the wide open feel it creates …previously I had deliberately left isolated copses of brambles in the lower garden both as a design feature to break up the view but also as a wild life sanctuary for the pheasants , rabbits and hares but now eight years on the trees and shrubs I had originally in that area have matured and the area no longer needs the brambles while the wild life has other wilder sections of the garden available .
I can’t claim the idea as my own however as Snezana has never agreed with my leaving clumps of brambles in situ and thinks my use of the words ” a design feature ” is a bit of a cop out not to tackle them and has been giving me grief for the past few years to clear them ….. the words ” looks like shite ” has been a familiar refrain when we walked in the lower garden so in search of a quiet life I was forced into my jihad against the brambles in January !
Cutting the brambles is just the first stage of the operation … the most dangerous too as some brambles were up to 20 feet long and as you cut they have a nasty habit of curling around your upper arms and head so when you move you get cut …goggles and head gear are essential but even dressed up like a bomb disposal expert as I was the air was fairly blue with expletive deleted language not often heard this side of the Mississippi !
The next stage is digging out the roots of the biggest clumps of brambles and generally getting as much of the roots as possible but for the next year or two the cleared area will require regular attention in cutting back the re emerging brambles which will root again from even the smallest piece left in the ground until they are weakened sufficiently to kill them off completely by spraying with round up .
I have burned off the clumps of brambles and will rake off the ground and level it over the next few weeks all the while digging out any brambles that I miss and will finish by sowing grass seed in early March over the cleared patch … finally when I have got used to the new area by early summer I will decide if to leave it completely under grass or whether it needs some shrubs or trees to complete the area .
For me the plant of the month of February is the snowdrop and usually at this time of year when it is too late I realise I don’t have nearly enough of them and resolve to plant more but usually forget in the autumn as daffodil planting fever takes over so this year I am buying snowdrops in flower and planting them out .
Opinion is divided on which is the best method of planting snowdrops with some favouring planting “ in the green ” which is by division of an established clump after flowering so I did that last year with this clump featured …… and while the new groups take , both they and the original clump takes a few years to recover .. so I won’t be doing that again and will stick in future to bulbs or buying in flower like these ones although in the past I have not had great success with snowdrops in flower as a problem can be in how they are prepared for sale as I suspect most are brought on under glass and kept under cover until sold in flower in the garden centres and then planted out into the severe February weather they don’t survive the shock …. I will keep these in a sheltered spot before planting out in a few weeks .
People often ask me am I not being too hard in my never ending rant about the deer that regularly come through the garden and that really we are lucky that they visit at all ….. I agree and we do love the fact that they are regular visitors and it is terrific when you walk around a corner of the lower field and there are four or five deer grazing before scampering off white tails bobbing ….. but the deer do a lot of damage especially to young trees and while I don’t mind deer eating the leaves or even entire branches and I would happily leave out food for them on a regular basis if only they would stop stripping the bark from the main base of the young trees …. this is apparently in the deer’s need for sugar and when this happens the tree dies , this week alone I have lost two young trees planted in January and just today I saw that the buggers had savaged a fairly mature green phormium in the lower garden that has been left alone by them for the past five years …I never know what they will hit next and it has got so bad now that I whenever I plant anything away from the house I am constantly checking that it has survived another day ….. bambi casserole anyone ?!!
After one of their recent daily trips through the garden the deer toppled this pot but it looked so good in it’s new position I am tempted to leave it like this !
We are lucky at least that we don’t have a wild boar problem in this country as there is an epidemic of them in mainland Europe and when a herd of them has visited a garden not only have they dug up and eaten everything they leave the ground looking like several earth diggers have been through it … also they are aggressive and will attack both dogs and humans . In Croatia where we live is next door to the Biokovo National Park and regularly in the village I see the local hunters gearing up to hunt boars when they periodically invade the area .
Up close and personal a boar is a fearsome sight standing over a metre in height and weighing up to 150 kg and did I mention the tusks ? One early morning before day break Snezana and I were walking down the hill when we heard a noise in the olive grove bordering the road ….. move on I hissed …. to Snezana you understand not to what was causing the noise …. and suddenly a big black boar sauntered out on the road about four metres away but luckily just sniffed and ambled away …probably thought the young one will be too fast to catch and the old guy not tender enough to eat and probably no challenge either as he will just faint !!
Wild life in the garden can take many shapes and a few years ago I opened the back door here in Old Spa Road and there looking at me from about two metres was a big billy goat complete with long curved horns … I didn’t know how to react and thought he was about to charge so just stood still and we looked at each other for a few seconds and eventually I said the first thing that came into my mind “ are you OK ” …. not the best chat up line in the circumstances and probably the same one I would have used if it was a massive cobra rearing up in front of me ….. anyway old billy was impressed as next thing I know he is over beside me lifting up his head to be stroked !
Apparently he was a tame billy , used to people but abandoned now by someone who probably dropped him off on the laneway …. I fed him for a few days but as eventually he would need a large field we got him into a neighbour’s field who kept cattle as apparently horses and goats get on well together and I see him most days very contentedly eating away in the middle of the horses !
I am a great fan of the Daily Telegraph ‘s weekly gardening section and of course gardening is above politics which is just as well as the Telegraph would be regarded as a high tory paper and if not anti –irish well at least not let’s say our great admirers but even so I was taken aback by the gardening section’s declaration last weekend on the subject of a proposed tour of irish gardens “if the following description of irish gardens glows with hyperbolic enthusiasm it is because I was so bowled over by the place during my research trip …there’s just something about Ireland , it’s gardens and wonderfully friendly gardeners that I find irrestible ” ….. yes I was shocked and stunned !!
Recently the BBC have been showing the second series of The Great British Garden Revival where various famous garden writers state a case in a 30 minute segment on a particular shrub/ flower or tree which has fallen out of favour and needs to be revived …. this worked well in the first series last year but they are really scraping the bottom of the barrel with this series ad I felt sorry for Diarmuid Gavin who was allocated lavender ….. basically lavender can be summed up in a few words …. does best in dry hot positions , hates wet soil and dies if cut back into old wood …. so of course the rest of the 30 minutes TV time is filled with the usual British eccentrics who only have lavender in their gardens … and what do you look at for the other 49 weeks in the year ?! Another presenter was struggling with tulips and again you can sum up tulips in a few words …. hates wet soil , blows over in wind , lasts one season …. someone should tell these guys there are some jobs you are better off not getting !
Melianthus Major is one of my favourite foliage plants bar none and in mild winters it comes through without being cut to the ground by heavy frost as did this one and even in winter it looks great .
People not long into gardening usually tell long term gardeners that their own particular garden is “ finished finally ” and perhaps it is if all you want is a piece of lawn with the few obligatory shrubs and the proviso that it all be low maintenance but gardens even “ low maintenance ” ones never stop evolving as plants will grow bigger and wider ( if you are lucky ) and will eventually need cutting back and in some cases … where for example inappropriate hedging like a line of leylandii were planted …. will need to be totally removed so my point is that even for reluctant gardeners the garden is never “ finished ” .
If that is your thing then no problem , my Father planted the same plants every May , never varied the scheme for sixty years in a tiny front garden space which was a row of white allysum alternated with a row of blue lobelia and two hanging baskets of petunias …. never experimented and gardening was done between May and end of October and he was really happy with the result … and that’s the key … if you are happy with your garden design no matter how basic than that is fine as you have what you want … I well remember the first time in the late 1970’s when he visited my first serious garden in Rosslare on an acre plot where I had begun a life long fascination with Robinsonian principles … he sniffed and said “ it’s a bit wild isen’t it ” meaning not manicured , no bedding annuals and worse no white allysum and blue lobelia …. but yes he inadvertently had got it in one ….. my gardening style was wild and not tailored .
But even the most controlled easy maintenance garden never stops evolving as plants don’t stand still and don’t stop growing and like it or not you are forced to either change or be constantly cutting back to restrict growth but I feel to be a proper grown up gardener you have to keep experimenting and changing as you and your garden get older but and here is the BUT …. you have to have an underlying style or a principle that you work to and a few years ago my daughter paid me a great compliment on first visiting this garden at Old Spa Road, said that even if she hadn’t been told who owned the garden she could recognise the design from thirty years ago in Rosslare ….. thanks Claire !
And as for the term low maintenance , that phrase beloved by lazy people … there is no such thing my dears when it comes to gardens !!
The second most asked question after the low maintenance one is what do I plant in my new garden and the best advice I can give is walk around your neighbourhood and note what is growing well in all seasons and copy these trees and shrubs … then plant the lawn …. fill the space available and leave a border of about three metres deep around it for planting and after a few seasons growth you can always either cut into the lawn for more beds or extend the lawn if you are happier with that look … finally when you are happy with the ratio of lawn to trees and shrubs I would advise putting in your paths as this will allow dry access to the garden in winter which will either increase your enjoyment from the garden or reproach you for your laziness as you sit indoors watching the TV during January and February !!
I took these photos in January and April 2006 of the empty space at the rear of the house as I marked out what would be the eventual lawn surrounded by shrubbery or so I hoped !
And this is how it looked seven years later .
Seasonal thought for the day …. when do I prune … and I was reminded of that today when absent mindedly I started to cut back a clump of miscanthus grass …… I always carry a secateurs with me in the garden and when is the best time to prune is when it suits you and you have the time to spare as even if it is totally the wrong season as all plants can do with a trim … and they will grow back anyway !!
One of the best winter flowers is the helleborus family and I plant the corsicus variety which has a lovely transparent like green foliage … some gardeners actually strip their helleborus stems of all their leaves in December to allow the blooms to be stand out more prominently however I like both the foliage and the flowers equally .
Spring has finally arrived here at Old Spa Road and a whole new season beckons …… enjoy !!