We started to build this garden fifteen years ago , the first sod was turned in January 2006 and although a garden is never standing still …or shouldn’t …. this essay , book , call it what you like , is to docuement the developement of the garden and grew out of a presentation I was asked to give to the Clonmel Horticultural Society about the creation of the garden in January 2016 .
We bought this house with almost eight acres of land at Old Spa Road in 2000 having decided to return to Clonmel , my home town after 40 years working both in Ireland and abroad with the last 15 years spent working in the Balkans mainly Bosnia , Croatia , Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo with two years in the Seychelles thrown in at the end …. contrast huh ?!
Contrast is the term which also could be applied to the land we bought . We didn’t need or indeed want such a large garden but the house came with an acre of ground but also with a laneway leading down past the house to an optional section containing nearly seven acres and for privacy sake in the future we took the extra land .
I call it land but it was next to useless at that stage and certainly could not be used for building purposes as it was totally water logged and accessible on foot only in summer ….. local people on the road knew it and always referred to it as “ the swamp “ which gives you a good idea of what it was composed of … yes .. wet watery ground full of rushes and reeds and certainly not a place fit for gardening but and here’s the thing , it also had a wild beauty and an almost wilderness isolation about it that attracted us .
The house and lower field as it looked in 2004
We had been working and living in the Balkans for six years when we decided to buy a base in Ireland , Snezana had been born in the Former Yugoslavia in Macedonia but while brought up and educated from an early age in Copenhagen yet had no strong desire to live there again so Ireland was an easy mutual choice . As I was born and brought up in Clonmel , Co. Tipperary I knew the town and countryside well and knew the areas I would like to live in and we had narrowed down the search for a house to three locations and as Snezana was the stranger to the area I decided she should choose which of the three prospective houses we should buy and with that in mind we walked the areas and left this house and land to the last so that in April 2000 we battled our way down the swamp ground through waist high grass, crossed the stream to the pine woods and suddenly she said “you can’t see another house or building from here lets go for this one” … contracts were signed and we had a garden to build !
Marking out the immediate back garden with a spade in January 2006
How the view from the window looks nine years later in 2015
We moved in and took possession of the house in November 2000 during a week’s leave from the EU in Bosnia but it would be a further eight years before I returned to live in Ireland permanently in the summer of 2008 . For the next few years while working in Bosnia the future creation of the garden back on Old Spa Road was just a dream to work on , plans were made , designs worked out and discarded until finally after many visits home and walking the land on a regular basis in all seasons we got a feel both for what was needed and what we could achieve .
The first planting was of 500 rooted slips of golden willow ordered from Terry Hanna of Clonmel Garden Centre and delivered when we arrived home on leave from Bosnia for Christmas in December 2001 and just recently I came across the original invoice !
Sometimes in Bosnia the locals were not friendly as in this photo when driving through Trebinje , a Bosnian Serb town just after the NATO bombings of Serbia in 1999 !
In this period before getting down to an outline design I used the opportunity on every visit home which was about twice a year usually at Christmas and Easter , to plant some trees and shrubs at the edges of the land which would be growing away in our absence but which would not interfere with any future overall design and in the meantime we felt good that something was growing which would leave us in a few years time with the outline of a skeleton design .
Finally in January 2006 six years after the original purchase I was home full time from Sarajevo and back at work at the day job with the Revenue Commissioners in Rosslare Harbour and ready to garden every hour of my spare time ! Snezana by now was working with the EU in Kiev , a good job and being younger than me was still keen on working abroad while I had had my fill of foreign postings and had been increasingly looking forward to coming home and setting down roots again in Ireland and especially in my home town . My dream job as Head of Office with the EU Fiscal Mission in the Brcko District , North Eastern Bosnia , had ended after seven years in December 2004 and I had spent my final year in Bosnia working in Sarajevo , it had become just a job and not the all consuming project Brcko had been and I was in effect going through the motions for that last year so I was ready for a new challenge in December 2005 , packed up and drove back to Ireland with some serious gardening on my mind !
At this stage a lot of this has been about me and the word ” I ” has been used a lot so a bit of background about our different gardening skills might be relevant at the start of our process of making a garden . Snezana had not been a gardener but had a feeling for nature and an instinctive flair for wild gardening so was content to leave the design and planting to me and while I had been a gardener for a long time having worked a large acre of garden for almost twenty years in Rosslare Strand but it was an established garden I took over there in 1978 , not one I created from scratch so in a sense with this project we were both going into uncharted territory .
We both had a strong love of wilderness even of isolation and a dislike of formality in gardens and were also agreed that the garden was for our enjoyment primarily not to please anyone else or to conform to any norms , a place to go to relax …. so in the first few years I took the lead in plant selection and the initial layout of the garden .
Man know thyself was reputedly carved over the entrance to the fifth century BC Greek Temple at Delphi and one thing I knew about myself was that while I knew about gardening and could plant and get things to grow but in DIY terms I was the original Mr. Bean and couldn’t put a nail in a wall…. so was in urgent need of a Man Friday who could do all the construction and hard landscaping !
I asked about among the Garden Centres in the Clonmel area as to who would be a good garden landscaper / contractor and was given a list of names and started ringing them . Three nicely dressed chaps with varying sizes of clip boards turned up at the door at intervals for interview and I outlined to each of them what I had in mind for the front and back immediate areas surrounding the house … they could all do part of the work , the heavy shifting of earth , the building of retaining walls , excavation for garden ponds etc. and they all in turn took copious notes , had reliable people they would hire in to do various aspects of the work , hire machinery and promised to get back to me with prices .
The last guy on the list I had been told was the best but difficult to get hold of but eventually he turned up for a chat dressed a bit better than your average tramp with hair in a pony tail down to his ass ….. no shiny suit or fancy clip board in evidence and that was my first introduction to Peter Cullen , owner of Longfield Landscapes , garden landscaper extraordinaire , who would become my partner in crime to this day !
We hit it off immediately on a personal level as my normal gardening attire was even scruffier than his but more importantly Peter never saw problems only solutions , had a machine for everything and was a complete one man show in that he could operate a digger , do brick work, plaster , lay paths , wire for electricity , you name it Peter could do it .. the perfect man for what turned out to be almost continous garden projects over the next ten years .
Over the years we never had a falling out over a plan or a disagreement about prices and neither of us had an ego problem over whose idea was best , I would come up with the initial idea and design which Peter would look at and comment on and if Peter could improve it or supply an alternative idea we would go with which was the best plan .
I had been planning the design on paper for about five years while working abroad for the immediate front and back garden and in those years had planted a few specimen trees and shrubs inside the front wall where the previous owner had planted a few cherry trees which over the years had grown lanky and I immediately cut these to the ground and repeated the process every year until eventually the trees took on a multi stemmed shape . We were lucky in that native ash trees, ash and holly had colonised the boundary hedges and ash is one of my favourite trees and that gave us natural cover along both sides of the front garden .
My idea for the immediate garden front and back was for a cosmetic pretty look , designed to show off and present the house and with this in mind I set out a pool along with grass on both sides of the entrance drive way , silver birch jaquemontii inside the front wall with a weeping willow near the house .
This design was accomplished quite quickly , and in a matter of weeks the pool was dug out , lined and filled with water and planted up with water lilies and a small lawn on either side of the driveway basically completed the work which over the next few years would see more trees added and a small bog garden established beside the pool and lots …. lots of pots added !
The work on the garden design begins March 2006
Front Garden thirteen years later in June 2019
The pool eight years later in July 2014
Front Garden May 2021
The next step was the immediate back garden which presented a problem in that the land sloped away into the lower field and my design was for a step down from the house into a private area for relaxation , eating etc, plus a nice assortment of trees , to do this I needed a more level platform to work with so the first step was to level the playing field so to speak by building a wall of concrete blocks over two metres in height on three sides and then back filling with earth to create a level area for grass …. in the end it took over 700 tons of top soil to get the level platform needed for the design and finally I was left with a plain rectangular shape into which with the help of a hose pipe for shaping the planting beds and regular trips to the top floor window to check how the finished shape was coming along and eventually I got the shape I wanted which was for a broad grass path to snake its way through the space available .
I took out almost 70 % of the space available for a wrap around shrubbery and outside the finished shape I sprayed off the ground with round up and eventually planted the wide variety of trees and shrubs that make up the back garden today .
The Back Garden 28th March 2006
Gradually the back garden began to take shape , a large rock that was found on the land became a feature and we added a seating area in the next three months and of course sitting there for our first cups of tea I saw that we could incorporate a small pool as a feature to take the eye .
The intention with the back garden was to provide a peaceful oasis , a private space out of view from the house yet close enough to be used for eating out , an area that was sheltered in all weathers yet a space that would also take advantage of being in full sun throughout the day . The trees in particular were chosen for their exceptional shape and leaf colour and in fact each plant used in this area had to earn it’s keep be they big grey leafed hostas , bamboo or specimen cornus ‘s .
To shield the garden from the house and give privacy to the seating area within the garden I planted a line of trees , a tilia ( lime tree ) , sorbus moonbeam var. lutescens ( mountain ash ), a purple leaf false cherry tree and my favourite tree of all , two groves of five and three pure white jacquemontii silver birch underplanted with heathers , WT Radcliffe , which mound nicely so have good structure even when not in flower . I placed a black painted pergola at the entrance for a focal point and have trained two wisteria over the wooden structure … wisteria is one of the great climbers , slowish to flower and can take up to five years after planting but its golden foliage provides interest for eight months of the year . I have added a purple leafed rhus cotinus which romps along the side of the structure .
The plan was to create an athmosphere of calm where there was only one entry point and no exit and as you enter the garden from right to left there is golden cornus , a pyrus lacrifolia with its grey leaf ( fake pear tree ), miniature variegated bamboo, purple corylus trees ( hazel nut ) , melianthus major with a glaucus green leaf , lime green eucalyptus trees, cornus elegantissimus with silver / white variegation – all cornus’s used in this planting have scarlet bark in winter , with perennials such as euphorbia , hostas sibildiana Francis Williams and purple fennel, used in the foreground .
On the left side as you enter I have planted box balls around the silver birch and underplanted with one variety of daffodil , Winston Churchill , which has a beautiful pink head while closer to the grass edge I have planted silver leaf plants , a row of catmint nepeta and english lavender with some perennial geraniums sprawling on to the grass .
This is how the back garden looked four months after initial planting in July 2006
And after the small seating area and pool was added in December 2007
The small garden pool four years later in June 2012
We spent the first eight months of 2006 setting up the front and back garden and Peter had assembled a great team with the two Michaels and his 17 year old son , Mark , who worked full time here on a five day week basis , it was an exciting time seeing the garden take shape and being here myself beside the team meant that we could change and tweak things as we went along as until now I had been away when work which we had commissioned was completed . The front garden was relatively simple at this stage as only the pond was added but the immediate back garden had to be laid out in detail with a rockery constructed to the side . I sat in on numerous cups of teas with the team during those months and a lot of design work got dissected and aired around and many a good idea was born during these sessions which with Peter being so flexible we were able to toss around and include in the final design .
One lesson I have always held to is that everyone has an opinion and if it is better than yours then don’t have an ego which is not prepared to accept such input .
All the while I was home in that initial period the Seychelles Government had been in touch with me to assist with a plan to revamp their customs service and I had been out there twice for field trips throughout 2006 but even though the Seychelles is like the original Garden of Eden , 7 degrees south of the equator with flora and exotic plant life to die for , each return to Old Spa Road was exciting to see what the team had achieved in my absence .
I know that when I returned to Ireland after fifteen years in the Balkans only six months earlier I felt it was for good but sometimes in life an offer comes along that as Don Corleone in the Godfather says is “ an offer you can’t refuse “ so when I was offered a two year contract as Head of the Seychelles Customs Service in the Indian Ocean I saddled up for one last hurrah and reluctantly left a garden project which was just beginning to get exciting and the garden basically stood still until in October 2008 I finally retired and became a full time gardener.
The contrast between the photo of the back garden as it was in 2006 and as it became in six years is illustrated by the next photo taken from the same position upstairs .
As it was two years after the initial planting in March 2008
As it was seven years later in July 2015
This photo of the immediate back garden from July 2011 illustrates the concept of relying on bark and leaf for colour … no flowers here !
Well no flowers except of the metal variety !
Visiting Blooms in the Phoenix Park in 2012 I fell in love with the giant galvanised flower heads designed by Joe Harte of Wild Metal , New Ross and three of them have found a place in a corner of the back garden and Joe has used a photo of the installation on his web page . I also fell for the iconic wooden Adirondack chairs first patented in upstate New York in 1900 … painting them Majorelle blue was Snezana’s idea !
Here you can see an example of great colour achieved without flowers , golden wisteria climbs along the pergola with the purple leafed rhus cotinus , the smoke bush in support .
Having raised and levelled the area which was to become the immediate back garden , I put in the initial planting of trees , mainly two groups of silver birch jacquemontii , I saw that the entrance to the garden needed a pergola to set it off ….. originally before we laid the gravel there was going to be three steps up into the garden but in laying the gravel and the paving slabs we lost the height and were left with just one step which had no impact . The back garden needed the right proportions so we set it back a generous width from the steps down from the house and this also allowed space later for the gravel garden .
Band of Brothers take a break April 2006 !
During my two years absence from Ireland I had regular trips home on leave from the Seychelles where I could monitor progress of the new plantings at the front and rear of the house , do some maintenance and add some new plants and it was all knitting together nicely . The Seychelles is one of the most beautiful places on earth , a tropical paradise where everything blooms every six weeks , where there is no real change in seasons , my house was in the middle of a rain forest and looked out over breadfruit trees to the Indian Ocean and my garden had a forest of banana trees , coconut trees , papaya … you name it , it had it and bird of paradise plants that grew forty feet , constant blue skies and white beaches … quite a contrast in say February when I arrived back at Old Spa Road !
A different type of plant grew in the Seychelles !
Nice to have one of these wondering through the lower wood … a bit big for hand luggage though !
Back in Ireland full time in summer 2008
But I loved being back in Ireland from previously the Balkans and now the Indian Ocean and I formed a fierce attachment to our quite horrible climate and the garden here became an escape … if you can call leaving both the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean an escape !!
I left all this in the Seychelles in 2008
For this in Ireland in 2009 !
During this two year gap in the the construction of the garden it gave breathing space over where to go next with the design if any of the lower swampy fields and I had plenty of time especially at the weekends while lying on a sun lounger sipping cold drinks beside the pool at the Banyan Tree Hotel on Mahe Island in the Seychelles ( such is the life of an international customs consultant !) to make plans for a possible expansion into the 7 acres of swamp and wilderness . Initially we had thought that it was too big a job , virtually an impossible task and were satisfied to strim a two metre path each summer down to the stream and leave it at that with the occaisional strimming in really fine weather of a path across to the woods and just leave the area as a natural wild life reserve . Snezana was now in Kiev with the EU and also had lots of time to hone her gardening knowledge and bring her own ideas on the future garden design to the table .
With hindsight and as they say “ if I knew then what I know now “ there is no way we would have attempted what proved to be a massive project to reclaim almost seven acres of swamp from the wilderness and most people would have shouted RUN !! It was madness but looking back now eight later it was worth it and it gave me a second career which I walked straight into after 40 years as a civil servant !
I had never gardened or designed on such a large scale previously and I suppose a naievity on both our parts also helped mask the enormity of the task in that there never was an overall plan just a series of projects tackling various areas with one leading incrementally to the next so we never woke up in the morning thinking there was a mountain out there to be climbed … rather every few months there was another exciting project beckoning to get started on .
As with all garden projects there were mistakes as I got to know the ground, the condition of the soil, the prevailing wind factor etc. but by and large with the front and immediate back garden , because the soil was bought in and was good , I managed to keep plant fatalities to a minimum and with its southern aspect most of what I planted originally thrived and the back garden evolved into what it is today with a secluded seating area , a restful palette of trees and shrubs with nine months interest while in the darkest bleak winter months of January to March the beautiful bark of the white silver birch light up the area until the spring bulbs and leaf comes back .
The right hand side of the front garden in July 2014 , a large pampas grass , the summer flowering variety , Rickardii , originally from New Zealand , there is a mulberry tree at the back peeping through and some silver birch underplanted with the big grey leafed hosta sieboldiana variety Francis Williams .
The entrance to the immediate back garden , wisteria and the smoke bush rhus cotinus frame the view to the majorelle blue painted adirondack seats .
The lower fields was a different matter with really wet ground so the first decision which we had been putting off for the six years since we first bought the site , was to decide whether we just left it to nature as it always had been or at least make access easier in all weather to the entire seven acre area so we opted as a first step until we were finally ready to commit to a possible major garden crusade !
We designed and laid out hard core gravelled paths through the middle of the top field to the stream and from there on around the entire perimeter of the seven acres but not entering the confifer wood as the boundaries were still not clear here … so Peter parked his digger at the house throughout October / November/ December 2008 … we used the opportunity to bulk up low lying areas with the excavated soil , created small dams along the natural stream which then allowed us to dredge out a small pond which in turn gave me the idea to create a small island in the middle of the new water area by digging out a channel around a planted up area into which the water found its own level .
Digging out the stream to surround a new island October 2008
Which in turn led to a small bridge ( japanese in style and painted red … naturally !) and of course a bridge needs to lead somewhere so that led to a wooden walkway through the wilderness area which allowed up close and personal contact with the most wonderful series of Scottish thussock grass hummocks growing wild in the deepest swamp area hidden amongst the wild iris’s and reeds and inaccessible normally unless in wellie boots on 5 foot stilts !
These unusual almost primeval thussock grasse’s are very rare and are created by nature as towers of earth that raise themselves about a metre above the surrounding water in order to provide a platform for grass hummocks to grow … we were lucky to find them buried in among deep water areas and the new wooden walk way was designed to weave through them and allow an up close look at them .
As you can guess from reading these words the bug had bit and we were off on the big adventure which was to last another eight years !
March 14th 2006 , damming the stream waters which will allow the island to be carved out .
And how it looked nine years later in June 2015
From the first excavation by the digger in those early days we were excited by what lay ahead and thought it was all lovely when in fact looking back now at photos of the mud , the water, it was positively awful and visitors must have been looking at our enthusiasm and wondering when the men in white coats would be arriving to take us away !!
October 2008 Mud mud and more … mud !
But you need a sense of wonderment and total naievity to tackle such a project and of course the vision thing is important so that you can see where it will all lead to and like the ugly duckling hope that someday you will end up with a swan !
You can see how it all happened now ,,, .. and that’s how we continued , one idea would lead into another , each piece of ground reclaimed , each turn of the path would open new possiblities – Snezana would come back on leave every six weeks from Kiev and look at what was being done with fresh eyes which would lead to further tweaking of the plan .
A wall built of salvaged railway sleepers built to shut off one “room” of the lower wood from the next section .
There was one narrow stretch of land in the lower fields with dry reasonable soil which in the 1950’s and early 60’s as my neighbour John Lawliss , who grew up on the laneway , tells me he remembers as a teenager that the then owner , a local small farmer known as Gilligan , had grown wheat and potatoes and which the next owner had planted with conifers in 1985 with a view to their eventual harvest and sale … but for some reason this area was never properly controlled or thinned out and at the time of this planting which was done professionally by the Forestry Board under a free scheme , a series of open water channels were cut to run off excess rain water and prevent leakage from the swampy ground all around the area . The conifer wood when we first stumbled in there twenty five years later in 2000 was now totally overgrown with brambles and interlocking branches and you couldn’t get through it without multiple cuts and grazes unless wearing a suit of chain mail and the old water channels were all choked with leaf mould and fallen branches .
The rest of the land was swampy , full of rushes and wild gorse , typical of West of Ireland bog land , the type of dreary land Oliver Cromwell said the native irish being expelled could go to in the 1640’s with his famous statement when asked where the dispossessed catholic irish could go “ To hell or Connaught “ . It looked very unpromising and daunting however I felt nothing can be all bad and perhaps something can be salvaged by either a drainage system or importing better soil so with that in mind I commissioned an ecological survey of the entire site in 2002 while still away in Bosnia .
I commissioned an expert , Mr. Gregory J. Roche , with a BSc in Forestry and Conservation to survey the land and in September 2004 he produced an “ Aquatic and Woodland Habitat Development Plan “ which was followed in December 2004 with a Woodland Development & Improvement Plan .
Both of these reports were exhaustive and provided food for thought at our fifth floor apartment in Ritzia Street , Sarajevo during the cold Bosnian winter months of 2004 / 2005 !
The aquatic analysis showed a stream running from west to east with the best soil at the western end where the conifer wood now stood and a variety of wet loving plants already growing wild such as downey birch , salix cuprea ( goat willow ) and purple , grey and white willow with an amount of wild wet loving plants such as yellow iris , purple loosestrife , hemp , knapweed and ragged robin . The report detailed soil samples taken at three different locations throughout the land and although basically wettish especially as you moved eastwards the results showed “ a high organic content and would be suitable for growing broadleaf species indigenous to Ireland “ .
Local legend has it that in the 1500’s the river Suir which now runs a Km. away to the north actually originally ran through the bottom of our land and certainly this is the lowest area of the garden and the wettest .
The Woodland plan states that any tree planted en masse “ will provide a hunting ground for local sparrow hawks and kestrels which are already residing in the area which also holds a healthy population of pheasants “ . The report recommended native oak and larch as good strong trees for planting along with willow .
The report stated that the site was wetland on the east side and should be planted predominantly with willows and this was the first thing we did which would provide a habitat for the huge amount of duck that over winter there to this day and at night the place sounds like Duck Central !
I was delighted with the reports because it confirmed what we already knew that the area was wetland but it added that the land was organic and good land apart from the wet unlike the land I had gardened in Rosslare for many years which was both wet and full of marl and the only way to grow anything was to import huge amounts of top soil …. feasible with the acre in Rosslare but impossible with the almost eight acres here .
The lower wood area in December 2008 just after the paths went in .
How this section of the Lower Wood looks seven years later in 2015
We worked away throughout 2009 at bringing a bit of tameness to the areas the new paths gave access to and strimmed any grass available into passable lawns and kept adding oak and willow in pockets and when Sanna’s seconded position with EUBAM in Kiev came to an end she took a year’s leave of absence from her custom’s officer post at Copenhagen Airport and devoted herself to full time gardening duties here .
Sanna could never work to instructions from me in the garden as she maintained I was (a) dictatorial and (b) gave her all the shit jobs so for a while she pottered away on her own until she found her niche which turned out to be the conifer wood where she disappeared for up to six hours daily as she hacked away at the brambles and cut away branches .
This suited me and if you have heard the old irish saying about donkeys or horses that will neither lead nor drive i.e. downright stubborn then you will know this sums her up BUT and I have to acknowledge this here , she worked hard ” like a liddle donkey ” as she says herself and achieved a huge amount to bring the wood under a semblance of control and this work which she started seven years ago continues to this day to the extent that no one apart from Sanna is allowed work or cut in the conifer wood !
The next project was in January 2010 when Sanna after one of her usual rambles off on her own came into the house to announce that there was a stream deep among the brambles in the lower field …. oh no there’s not says I .. oh yes there is she says …. and there was a stream exactly where she said it was !
I found it , I found it ! Our equivalent of finding the North West Passage January 2010 !
With enough to be doing trying to get to grips with the rest of the garden wilderness areas I just had never tried to penetrate deeper through the 5 metre high brambles which in that area of the garden presented a solid wall of forty metres wide inpenetrable bramble, thinking it was just an inaccessible and unviable corner of the garden . We made our way in carefully along the route Sanna had just cut through fallen trees , deep vicious brambles which had twined themselves thirty feet into the thick conifers and about thirty metres in sure enough we heard running water and there was the stream about a meter wide and totally overgrown but a valuable asset and one we needed to exploit …. It was a real eureka moment almost like coming across the source of the Amazon !
Strange as it seems now but back then there were several areas of the garden which were totally overgrown and covered in thorny brambles up to twenty metres high and as I was only living full time in the house just over a year since my retirement from Bosnia and the Seychelles , I concentrated on reclaiming the more easily accessible areas and skipped what looked like a total jungle placing all the rest on a to do list at some point in the future however Sanna pushed ahead into the unknown in her bid to lay claim to what would be her personal project .
There always was a source of water feeding the stream running across the land at the bottom of the lower field but I had thought that it came directly across under the road from the mountain and had never got around to trying to get into an area of the garden I had written off as just full of huge brambles and the stream actually came through the centre of this mass of briars about 50 metres thick .
We got Peter in with his diggers and ripped a path through the briars to a stream which linked in to our main stream and three weeks later we had a path linking both top and lower areas of the garden and now it is the nicest part of the garden as we were able to develop the stream with water side planting of gunnera, darmera , rodgersia, hostas and ferns to make a lovely woodland walk , we created three dams along the stream using railway sleepers which raised the water levels and gave the lovely sound of running water and an added bonus was that the new walk way connected two parts of the garden and provided an extra entrance from the lower field to the area we called the secret garden and we also added a bridge which gave a focal point to new opening .
Eventually we got a pathway cleared enough to get a digger in and then widened the stream to two meters and I spent the next six weeks sourcing stone all over the garden and eventually built a small stone edging the entire length of the newly discovered stream .
How easy those words describe what was a horribly choked up briar jungle that we had to reclaim almost inch by inch and by the end of a five day marathon with the digger we ended up with a pile of brambles , tree branches , tree roots which easily reached ten metres high and which burned continuously for three days !!
Three years later in 2013
Ripping out the new path beside the stream had meant cutting down a lot of scrub willows plus some conifers and we made a policy decision not to cut up the wood for firewood instead we stacked it in piles with the view of creating homes for beetles and eventually the wood will go back into nature and we have continued this ever since with the trees we are thinning on a regular basis from the conifer plantation. This area was planted by the previous owner in 1985 as a cash crop but it was never thinned or managed with the result that there was overcrowding and quite a lot of trees never matured properly . An ongoing project has been to thin out the spindly weak trees in the conifer area , cut out all branches at a lower level to allow easier walking through the trees and this in turn has allowed more light to filter through which has encouraged wild elder to seed and bring more life back into the area .
We had designed the newly laid paths to finish as I have said earlier at the entrance to the conifer wood and to cut across in front of the conifer area for two reasons …. although I knew from the site maps that we owned at least part of the wood I had no idea how we could bring the forest into the overall design due to the deep swamp water on one side and secondly I was not sure where our boundary line was and how much of the forest we actually owned which meant waiting until John Lawless who owned the adjoining land returned for his annual trip home from the UK .
I had ventured with great difficulty into the swamp once just after we bought the land and tried to balance what the site map said with the reality on the ground but had written the whole area off in my mind , however much we owned , as there was no way I thought the area could have been of use garden wise apart from being like the Florida everglades albeit without the alligators !
In April 2010 John whose family has owned the neighbouring land since the 1930’s arrived and I arranged to walk the area around the forest with him and John very kindly advised that we owned all the wood and even about 25 metres past it which in July 2010 allowed us to drive a wooden walkway through the swampy edge of the land and link up 185 metres later with the land on the north side of the wood where we laid a gravel path of 180 metres to take us back to the main garden … mostly the swamp took wooden stakes 2 meters long to support the walkway but at the far end the swamp was so deep we ended up using telegraph poles to support the walkway over the last 20 metres … if either of us ever goes missing … check this area first !
Operationally as I have said this involved driving in two metre length larch poles at a metre interval to support the wooden pathway but the ground is treacherous here so every step had to be cautious as a step sideways from OK dryish ground can without warning plunge down through swamp to three metres and while basically we designed the path to curve , it really was all driven by the state of the ground underneath. The final stretch opened out into a wider more dangerous total swamp area and this we widened and lengthened to allow a bigger expanse of water and which was also the deepest and took the four metre long telegraph poles .
What the same deep swamp area looked like five years later in July 2015
Where the path met up again with the dry land of the conifer wood I felt we needed a statement piece to link the two together and while lining the bank with half size railway sleepers was an option we decided to go with the more formal granite stone cut into irregular size blocks , a seat and some pots were added to the bank and the look hasen’t changed in six years …. a good sign that the design works !
Five months later on December 2nd 2010 , the bad winter of that year
Five years later in July 2015
This new series of paths allowed access to a hitherto impenetrable swamp on one side of the conifer wood and thorn infested woodland on the other side and added a very interesting semi circular woodland walk of over 400 metres to the garden which seems almost primeval especially if down there on your own as you are totally surrounded by wild nature . We added very little to this area apart from the paths , I put a few silver birch in , added an old bicycle and a milk churn and then threw in divisions of drum stick primulas which over time will colonise and spread throughout the area and then added some water lilies to the deep swamp where there is open well lit water . This swamp area has never been in use and has been left to nature for thousands of years and now with the wooden walkways we get to share it without intruding too much on nature .
Since we bought the property Snezana had spent a lot of time cutting away at the brambles and undergrowth on the dry land boundary to the right of the conifer wood even though I could not see the point of it as it seemed a dead end , a cul de sac area ending abruptly at the swamp water’s edge with nowhere else to go … and I hate walking to a point and then having to retrace your steps … but she still hammered away at it year after year but then we ( notice it was Snezana up to this point and then became WE ?!! ) got the eureka moment of continuing across the water and round to the other side of the wood ….. you can see why she is proprietorial to this day about the conifer wood !
This walk around the conifer wood is for me the most natural and spiritual part of the garden and the area where we have intruded least into the natural environment . The wooden path winds it’s way through wetland and willow trees that have existed untouched and unwalked for centuries and you feel miles away from civilisation down here .
The swamp area five years later in June 2015
New woodland planting five years later in 2015
This area was not planted but as soon as the conditions were provided by widening the swamp area , nature moved in and colonised it with self seeded wild iris and caltha , marsh marigold … sometimes less is best and we have not added much more to this area apart from some big grey leafed hostas , sieboldiana Elegans … grey leaf rather than the variegated type Francis Williams which although beautiful in most areas but here I feel the variegation would look artificial and contrived .
Of course there have been a few disasters in the water area where I unfortunately added the lovely looking but hugely invasive parrot feather and it quickly took over within two years and it took another two years to eradicate it and even now several years later I am continually fishing it out before it can take over again .
Over the next few years we gradually thinned out the wood , cut back the brambles and cut all side branches of conifers up to a height of two metres so that you can now walk through the forest without getting scratched or losing an eye plus the thinning has allowed light to flow into the shaded areas and promoted all sorts of self seeded plants . I say “ we “ but in reality as I have said previously this is Sanna’s domain and she guards it jealously and rightly so as it was her perseverence that drove it’s reclamation .
When thinning the conifers we continue to cut and stack the logs in situ which apart from being pretty and organic looking allows a home for frogs and insects and once when lifting a log that had fallen off a pile I came across a very surprised looking frog who looked up at me as if to say “ dude where’s my roof gone “ !
Gradually over the next two years having seen what can be accomplished with wooden walkways over water we laid paths through all the forgotten wetland corners of the garden so now all areas are accessible . We naturalized and planted along these paths and every year nature has further colonized these areas with the damp loving wild astilbe known as meadow sweet together with purple loosestrife , wild water mint and with wild iris which thrives in this garden . From the very beginning we saw that the area at the bottom of a natural slope in the garden , an acre in size , was impossibly wet so rather than fight it we decided to emphasize and turn it into a complete nature wetland area by damming the stream and flooding the area even more and in the very first planting in December 2000 I planted 500 rooted specialist golden willows and each February I cut these hard back to encourage young fresh growth and better bark colour and with the cuttings I plant hundreds of “ slips “ back in the ground and this gives great winter colour . This first planting quickly grew and within two years was providing winter shelter and cover for our small population of resident water hens and the hundred’s of ducks which return every year and a pair of herons have taken up permanent residence at the bottom of the area while a pair of snowy egrets , a small white heron , arrive from North Africa every November and stays until February … the old adage “ build it and they will come “ so true with the wild life and native plants that self seed together with the oak and silver birch and in a short ten years the lower areas of the garden have been transformed completely .
Over the years we have liked to add quirky items throughout the garden , be they old farm equipment or as in this case a large rock sourced on the Comeragh mountains in early 2010 which was just the right height and shape look like a bronze age standing stone or ogham stone as they are called in Ireland so it went in as a focal point at the bend of the wood beside the path . The fresh earth in the background is the area cleared of brambles in linking the two areas of the garden via the stream and the tree house is located there now .
I came across this stone Mother & Child figure in Glenconnor Garden Centre in 2010 , in poor condition with it’s base broken from when it had fallen over in a storm …. it reminded me of my own Mother and how good she was to me … I was an only boy with three sisters but ” the Irish Mammy ” treats her son as the greatest gift to mankind …. my own three boys clubbed together to buy it .
After we opened up the path by the stream in 2010 and linked both sides of the garden in the lower fields our favourite walk in the garden had become the stroll across the wooden bridge and up along the stream into what we called the secret garden as it was a small oasis of lawn surrounded by trees. I loved the view up the stream now bordered by lush plantings of architectural foliage plants such as giant gunnera , dermara , hostas and rodgersias and realized that by adding an extra support to the existing three large conifers where the paths met that we could build a structure suspended above the ground and still preserve the view .
Peter Cullen was called into action in May 2011 and the tree house project was initiated and built …. A beautiful place to sit , just a wooden platform with railings but without a roof and facing south west so gets the sun all day and if the weather is right the sun sets directly opposite and as you are surrounded by trees at what is roof top level you really do have the feeling of being away from it all !
Viewing a garden from above gives a different perspective and an opportunity to observe the passing wild life and OK while it is not set in Kenya and there are no giraffes or elephants we enjoy the odd deer and fox strolling past !
The tree house blended in from the beginning and this is how it looked four years later in July 2015 with virginia creeper growing up both front columns which I hope eventually will swarm and give the impression the tree house is floating and growing out of pure vegetation .
My first grandchild was born on December 23rd 2010 six months before we built the tree house so it seemed appropriate that we name it Marko’s Tree house but as he lives with his Mam & Dad in Montenegro he didn’t finally get to see it until this time in August 2013 ,
By 2012 the only boundary line section of the garden we hadn’t touched was what we called the wilderness area where the ground was full of water as the drainage in this the lowest part of the garden had clogged up over 50 years ago when the original stone drains had silted up through lack of maintenance since they were laid by the Quaker Family who owned all the land in this area in the mid 1800’s and as I have mentioned we had added to this by damming the stream .
The family had been very ecologically minded and two spinster Quaker sisters had made it their life’s work to propagate oak trees which they planted as acorns all along the hedgerows leading from our valley right up to the mountain road and theses are the very oak trees you can now see today one hundred years later . Our eastern boundary looks right at these original oak trees where a long line of them runs along my neighbour’s fields and Sebastian has very kindly cut down our boundary hedge in this area where we can “ borrow ” the view of these lovely trees while sons and daughters of the original oaks have self seeded into our surrounding ditchs .
The plan originally for this entire water meadow south of the stream as I have mentioned was to leave it to nature as a wet land habitat for the ducks , water hens and herons and we set about providing shelter and seclusion so that they could breed and feel at home there and for the first few years I added to the original planting of over 500 willow trees as rooted cuttings and a few silver birch whips and quite soon the entire area was covered in trees that don’t mind the damp and to this mix nature contributed self seeded iris and wild astilbe and we forgot about the whole area as it was too wet to venture into but we were satisfied from the noise each night that entire colonies of ducks and frogs had made it their own !
Thanks to the original planting of willows this area was now full of wet loving trees , a real delta type wetland only missing a crocodile or two to give it a steamy Florida look !
However in March 2012 we decided that the watery wilderness area should be accessible in a limited way and we designed a series of wooden walkways and stone paths that allowed us to walk through the area without any major impact on the wild life ,
Peter Cullen did his magic again and we were able to use some left over sandstone slabs for a small seating area which faces the morning sun and looks out on the ancient line of oaks .
With a digger we also opened up a 30 meter natural canal beside the new seating area which immediately flooded with water from the wetland and I planted up some water lilies, hostas , rodgersia , gunnera (giant rhubarb) , marsh marigold ( caltha ) and papyrus reed and within a year nature has self seeded wild iris and meadow sweet .
This was one messy project , mud and water everywhere and I really had little hope for it and it was the one garden project that was seriously underestimated in the amount of filling that was needed to lay stone paths across the marshy swamp … I had decided we would go for stone here rather than wooden boardwalk as the continuation path from here would have to be wooden on deep supports as it was out over five feet of water .
We deliberately don’t enter this wet land very often but when we do it is lovely to see the winter ducks , the water hens , herons and every winter we get a magical visit for a few weeks of a pair of snowy egrets from North African shores and as long as you keep quiet you won’t spook them … an unexpected bonus of the wilderness project .
Flossie and Toby wondered where to now ?
A change of plan for the back of the house … but first a clear out of plants killed in the great frosts of the 2009 & 2010 winters
Originally when we didn’t have a back garden in 2002 I planted the raised area running along the rear of the house , 2 meters wide by 20 meters long , with dramatic foliage plants such as phormiums which would at least give us something to look out the window at but more to the point would conceal the eyesore of a wasteland that lay beyond !
Later from 2007 onwards when a back garden was beginning to take shape out across the gravel area I often regretted planting up the area outside the back windows as it now concealed the real garden and wished I had gone for a more pared back zen like style which would not be so dominating but I lacked the ruthless gardening streak required to dump well established plants and hesitated to take out and replant the by now well established phormiums et al …. nature in the shape of the horrible winters of 2009 and 2010 solved the problem as most of the planting was lost in those two artic type winters with – 15 deg conditions lasting up to eight weeks at a time .
Peter arrived with his diggers and we cleared out what was left of the planting – over 50 beautiful foliage plants had been casualties of the frost of those two terrible winters and it was pretty traumatic to see their remains being dug out . I was able to save three small trees , a salix kilmarnock willow , a weeping purple willow and a catalpa ( indian bean tree ) which we successfully transplanted down in the secret garden where I am delighted to say they have thrived in their new locations .
The immediate back of house planting 2009
Sanna of course has never let me forget that she was opposed to this planting and preferred a cleaner look from the beginning but back then ten years ago she bowed to my superior knowledge of gardening design but sadly she is less inclined to bow these days and has become annoyingly vocal !!
Gardeners who experienced those two awful winters of 2009 / 2010 will never forget the loss of greatly loved established plants and the gaps they left in shrubberies across Ireland and the UK and we have never regained confidence in New Zealand plants such as phormiums and cordyline trees .
Those two had an exotic look and were the first plants I drafted into every planting scheme … never again sadly as the memory of dead plants being pulled out is one that lasts .
Newly cleared area at back of house Feb. 2010
We replanted with four brilliant white stemmed Silver Birch Jacquemontii and underplanted with white gravel into which was sunk small LED lights which illuminate the trees at night .
September 2011 … a year later going for broke … the final solution for the back of house design
The other problem with the immediate back of house was with the original indian sandstone slabs we had laid on the patio outside the window looking into the back garden from the sun room but which despite our best efforts had always managed to look untidy no matter what I put out there and of course everything was highly visible from inside the round picture window which was a feature of the room both inside and out and was a constant reminder to us that we had got it wrong .
We couldn’t put patio furniture out there as it would block the view from inside and anyway it was quite exposed so not a particularly nice place to sit and while I experimented with various garden pots and cottage garden type planting between the sandstone slabs , nothing really worked and it looked awful so what to do ?
When we bought the house the entire back of the house outside the back door was built as raised decking which apart from being lethal in wet weather was in bad repair and needed to be replaced which we had carried out in brick . We were still working abroad at the time and had the work carried out in our absence which is never a good idea with the result there was no tweaking with the plans as there would normally be if living here full time and we ended up with just an adequate design which didn’t really gel and the indian sandstone never worked nor did the too narrow set of steps leading down into the garden .
We lived with it for a few years , unhappy but unable to design a replacement until eventually in August 2011 on holidays we had a eureka moment when we saw wide old granite stone steps running up to a different level outside a local church in Croatia and thought we can adapt this to our own more humble location !
The steps really were a eureka moment and the key to the new design which would see us remove the entire area , dig down to ground level and install a centre piece water feature outside the round window and a terrace patio .
Snezana’s only stipulation was that the new set of steps leading down to the garden should be wide enough to allow people to sit , chat and have a cup of tea or coffee in comfort … and then jetted back to work in Kosovo leaving me to come up with a plan that would work , probably our most detailed design project to date , with her usual statement if I don’t like it I won’t pay ringing in my ears – no pressure then !
Pascal Mansfield made a reality of our outlined plans and was the major contributor of ideas and tweaks to what turned out to be a great build . Pascal did all the initial construction work of dismantling the existing patio and project managed the reconstructive brick laying and construction of the new set of steps .
A really messy job of over five weeks in October 2011 involving diggers , burst pipes , sweat and tears , mini nervous break downs and a construction site resembling the immediate post war Berlin !
As I have said the steps , their width and position were the key to the overall design from ground level but the key detail looking out from inside the house was the water feature , too big and it would distract from the garden below and the view from inside the round window and too small and it would be insignificant … my first thought was a rectangular formal pool but Sanna felt we had enough pools around the house so while retaining the rectangular shape of the pool I came up with the idea of a floating block of granite which almost covered the surface area of the pool and from which water would pour in sheets back into the pool .
A large hole appeared outside the back door and the immediate back garden became a major construction site over the five weeks while I took a back seat to Pascal with my major role being that of supplier of cups of tea !
Gradually The new steps took shape
The centre piece of the new design on which the success of the entire project would rest was always going to be the water feature which had to be exactly the right height so as to lead the eye from inside the window to the garden without distracting …. but what was the right height ?
At this stage with the brick work almost completed Peter Cullen took up his role in the project which was to install the water feature and lay the floor tiles .
I spent a lot of time agonising with Pascal and Peter over the height of the limestone slab and how it would be supported , the ratio of granite slab to water and the depth and width of the water around the slab and to make things even more difficult I had no photo or example from the usual sources such as gardening books or magazines to go on … this would be a one off design … so again …. no pressure !!
I had found and selected the stone with Peter just after it came out of the ground at the quarry in Killenaule , discussed and drew up its dimensions and dressed finish design with the Quarry Manager … who either hadn’t listened or just didn’t bother or the original stone mason was blind drunk … take your pick but either way the finished stone was delivered in a horrible condition with scratches all over the surface , the eight openings for water were all out of kilter and left in a totally unfinished condition … very disappointing however some harsh words were delivered to the effect that we wanted a product finished to the same level as Coolmore Stud would demand or else the stone would be winging it’s way back to Killenaule Stone Quarries .
To be fair to them , Killeanaule Stone Quarries rose to the occaision , acknowledged that they had misread the brief and not realising it wasen’t just a a big ornament to be sited deep in a garden but was intended to be the focal point of a hard landscape design feature to be viewed up close and they sent over a stone mason who spent two days on site leaving us a beautiful finished stone centre piece .
When the granite slab was delivered the lorry blocked traffic on the road for nearly an hour trying to get in the gate but then as now over the years of garden construction our neighbours , bless them , were forgiving .
Steady steady ! Back at the Garden the stone is winched onto the patio Sept 2011
Right up to the final moments of laying down the piece into its rectangular base of water I had nagging doubts that the overall design would work or that it might dominate the view across to the garden from inside the room but fitting the huge granite slab into its new home and installing the water system flowing across the face of the granite was Peter’s finest moment . I have to admit I did not design the water flow and the concentric design flow was all Peter’s and it worked beautifully .
The water system was connected
But it felt right immediately and suddenly like U2 we had found what we were looking for !
But final approval was still to come as Snezana arrived on site November 2011
Johnny was finally happy with the new steps Nov 2011
Two years on we are delighted with our new feature October 2013
And our neighbour’s pets have also taken to the new steps !
Front Garden Sun Room Project December 2012
Like the back patio we had got a bit fed up with the view into the front garden from the sunroom and although the rock sculpture with it’s built in water feature was a good focal point yet behind it the background of yellow stemmed cornus looked tired and shapeless and tended to blend into the huge weeping willow at the edge of the front lawn and the overall effect just didn’t work .
I take the blame as I had selected the planting and then allowed it to grow out of control when in hindsight clipped formality would have been better for that location . I am a great believer in the room outside concept popularized by the English garden designer , John Brooke , and definitely our room outside was lacking something .
We got the idea of where to go to next design wise from an old Ottoman house converted to a guest house where we stayed during a visit to Antalyia on the mediterranean coast of Turkey in May 2011 , the upstairs had a huge ceiling to floor window where we use to sit in the evening looking out over the garden and wondered could we achieve the same look at home ?
The obvious place was our garden room and the first step was to install floor to ceiling patio doors in place of the three windows in the original extension we had added to the house in 2004 and of course this was just the first step and once completed the next challenge was to bring the garden closer in a wrap around in your face way .
We wanted a more intimate relationship with the garden directly outside the front windows and the solution seemed to be raised beds of mixed planting but how to create this without the end result looking boxy or cutting off access to the back garden on that side and what material to use to build the raised beds ie. wood , stone or brick . Wood seemed a better choice and my favourite wood for a raised bed has been always to use railway sleepers which I like for their organic antique appearance however in this area I felt a more modern clean look was needed so we settled on a larch wood cut to the same thickness as railway sleepers but with a more subdued neutral wood colour which would fade over time to a nice silvery grey and with the added bonus later if I missed the railway sleeper effect I could always blacken the wood with a blow torch as demonstrated recently on Grand Designs by Kevin McCloud – not me personally with a blow torch I hasten to add as anyone who knows me knows that I would be likely to either set fire to myself or the house being as I am the Mr. Bean of the DIY world !
Plans stalled over a design problem as raised beds would cut off access to the back garden at that side which would mean the only access was on one side of the house to the entire back garden which with the garden open to the public would be limiting then John Lawless , our neighbour , over for a cup of coffee one afternoon and sitting outside the new front sliding doors , came up with the simple solution which was to cut out a new pathway through the lawn from the front driveway out onto the laneway and by pass the proposed new raised beds … simple …. but brilliant idea John !
In December 2012 Peter Cullen built and installed the new larch wood raised beds which were filled with earth and I planted up with a selection of mid high shrubs and perennials with all year round colour leaf or bark and throughout each season I add seasonal bedding plants for variety and colour plus nasturtium to trail out over the beds for a more natural overflowing look .
Construction of the new raised planting beds December December 2012
The original plan for the outside patio floor was to use wooden decking however Irish winters mean that this can be lethal underfoot so we decided to match the brick work at the back patio which was laid the year previously .
Moving the stone centre piece
The previous central stone water feature which had been installed in the original 2006 front garden as a centre piece to the front three windows now was now off centre in the new design by half a metre and had to be repositioned so as to take centre stage again .
In April 2006 Peter and I had found the large granite stone in a quarry at Manor Stone in Littleton , Co. Laois along with a similar smaller stone and the two positioned together always was for me a reminder of a Henry Moore type Mother & Child .
The look had to be just right and I am sure I broke Peter;s heart trying to get the position of the child to the mother at exactly the right angle !
And also I am sure by the end he was going to tell me that anymore moving of the rock would be by myself !
By removing an old leylandi from the hedge we were out in the laneway beside the house ….
We were able to reuse some old bricks from the original front paving for the new pathway
A pergola then suggested itself into the new opening which was planted with some climbers , wisteria , clematis , chilean potato plant (solanum ) and we were in business !
The pergola two years later in July 2014
Don’t get me wrong about new ideas suggesting themselves as if it is an easy natural process … sometimes it can be what I call a eureka moment and you know it is right but also there can be quite a bit of angst involved and we take a lot of time deciding what goes best for each particular location and then kick it around a bit more , chat with other gardeners and go through all possible angles before the final decision .
Mildred Stokes , a great gardener , arrived to cast a beady eye over the new project and her immediate comment was “lose the cornus‘s” which I had close planted under the the golden weeping willow and although I liked close planting I could see that the willow needed space to come into its own so we lost the cornus’s with much sobbing from me and now the weeping willow has the wow factor !
Over the years this area under the willow tree has become home to spring flowering bulbs such as daffs and crocus together with hellebores and basically anything low growing I get as gifts from fellow gardeners and for all year round structure I also slip lots of my geranium biokovo and they have romped happily in the semi shaded area .
I felt the area to the left needed something to break the view to the entrance a bit and my first thought was to plant a group of three silver birch directly into the paving but was weaned off this idea by Snezana’s downright opposition .. apart from breaking the view a solid stucture of sorts was needed to stop someone driving directly onto the water feature and then I remembered two Japanese style pots in the Clonmel Garden Centre that seemed to have been there forever like two guard dogs leading into their Japanese section of plants and planters . I had first seen these back in 1999 when they first came on sale at 1200 pounds for the pair and while at the time I had no garden I still thought they would be unusual in the right setting and over the years had seen a sold sign on them at least three times , yet they were still there in December 2012 ?
I asked Chris Hanna , owner of Clonmel Garden Centre about the pots and he confirmed that they had never sold for a variety of reasons over the fifteen years and yes they were now for sale at a reduced price and we did a deal of buy one at 300 euros and get one free !!
The pair are a patented numbered design based on 16th century pots from the Emperor’s Palace in Kyoto and the slots at the top were for thick bamboo branches for ease of transportation .
As soon as they were placed in position it was as if they had been there forever and yes the thought did strike me they were waiting like King Arthur’s Excalibur for the right garden to come along !
Just to illustrate that suggestions in the garden are always welcome , an architect friend was visiting a week later , admired the two pots but added they would look better if supported on bricks …. and so they were and a week later another friend suggested they would add impact if closer together .. and again we tried the new position and yes it worked !! Yet another friend suggested three of the same pots would fill the space better but this was a pot too far as the Garden Centre tried to source a third , fourteen years after the original order but the suppliers , a US company , were no longer in business but the moral of the story illustrating just two pots is everyone ‘s suggestion is valid and nobody has the monopoly on the complete design …. and one should never be afraid to listen !
And how it looked three years later in October 2016
Of course the proof of any design is does it work and do what it says on the tin and here we have no doubts and every time I sit inside the garden room looking out at this patio I remain delighted with it .
Opening the Garden to the Public for the first time June 2012
In January 2012 Mildred Stokes had contacted me to say that she heard we were creating a woodland garden and asked if we were prepared to have it join the Tipperary Garden Trail and open the garden to the public. I had never met Mildred , a former winner of Tipperary garden of the year , Munster Garden of the Year and Irish Gardener of the Year , but had heard for many years about her famous garden at Killurney . I said that I would not presume that our garden was good enough and which at six years in existence was a very young garden and very much a work in progress but would be happy if she vetted it herself and then make up her mind if it was ready .
Mildred arrived for an initial visit a few days later accompanied by Pauline Hegarty , another well known Clonmel gardener of Kilmacomma Garden . It is always nice to accompany other gardeners around your own garden and have them pass a critical but friendly eye on your efforts and both Mildred and Pauline came up with some good suggestions which I was delighted to implement and the end result was that we were invited to become part of the Tipperary Garden Trail in late June 2012 .
Pascal Mansfield, a friend , who had built the new back patio and steps was also Secretary of the Clonmel Lions Club and we decided to donate the garden open weekend collection proceeds to the charity as I have always been impressed by their low key non religious approach to fund raising especially at Christmas with their practical contribution of tins of food campaign .
The Lions Club , led by its then President , Patricia Mathews , were initially slow to commit to the open weekend concept never having dealt with an open garden weekend before but quickly warmed to the task and publicized the event by word of mouth throughout the local membership and the response over the two days of the open weekend was magnificent .
Lions Club members took it in turns to man the gate over the 29th June weekend 2012 , collected admission fees and without them we wouldn’t have had a quarter of the turn out and in the end over one hundred people visited the garden over the two days and as a result raised 500 euros for the charity .
In 2013 , the Lions Club , with Noelene Bergin as President , having the experience of the previous year’s year’s event and learnt from it were committed from the beginning and by April 2013 had a working group committee planning the open weekend over the 5th and 6th July . The Lions Club garden committee publicised the event on twitter , Facebook and on local radio , had signs printed and put up on roads around Clonmel , rotated members for collection and gate duties , baked cakes … and its members turned out in great numbers to help swell the visitors to over 200 people and raised 1000 euros for charity .
We enjoyed the visitors , it was hectic and exhausting and we were on our feet constantly from 11am to 7 pm each day giving guided tours and answering questions on everything from plants to the garden design timeline but everyone we met was positive and we were left with only good memories .
You certainly learn a lot from opening your garden to visitors and you get everyone from the family wanting a day out and a good walk for the kids to committed gardeners and I can honestly say hand on heart that everyone we encountered were nice people and at the end of each open weekend there was not so much as a sweet paper or wrapper left to pick up …. but you do need to be able to answer questions about almost every plant in the garden …. and as Snezana found out early on calling rhus cotinus “red bush” doesen’t quite cut it for your dedicated garden visitor and a little more detail is called for !
We have continued opening the garden each year for the Lions Club Charity and numbers visiting have increased from year to year and this year over the weekend of June 27th /28th 2016 we again enjoyed good attendance and very importantly good weather on this the fifth consecutive year .
So a big thank you to the Clonmel Lions Club for such support .
Gradually garden clubs throughout the country became aware that the garden was open for visitors and throughout the summer months we have welcomed a wide variety of people , many of whom give us not only good feed back but sound advice from their own experience in gardening .
And sometimes the visitors are not so welcome …. some tend to eat the trees and shrubs !
And a visiting landscape artist , Mary Brigid Mackey , paints a picture in July 2014
Our neighbours and how important they have been to the garden
Constructing a garden like building a house can be an inconvenience to neighbours with all the going and coming of trucks and building materials but at least a house takes only a few months whereas my neighbours have had to put up with it for the past eight years with diggers, dump trucks, land rovers parked on the laneway along with loads of top soil, stone filling , piles of blocks & bricks ….at various intervals .
So a big thank you to Irene & Liam , Phillip & Margaret , Geoffrey & Bernie , Michelle & Sebastian .
Shared hedges and boundary lines can also be a problem and a bone of contention for the neighbour involved but we were lucky to have John Lawliss and Sebastian Boisson with land on our boundaries both of whom could not have been more helpful and who took an active interest in every new project .
The accompanying photo of the road way during a typical project illustrates …so a big thank you to you all !
Evolution of a garden
Nothing stands still and gardens certainly don’t nor should they and of course our thoughts on gardens and even on favourite plants evolve and no guarantee that what we liked yesterday will still be a favourite in a few years time . If a garden is not maintained nature will reclaim it within a year so it is a constant battle especially in our case here where wild gardening is the thing and the line between ” wild ” and out of control is a very thin one !
Nature also has a way of altering the garden and in the big storm of February 2014 we lost quite a few of the trees in the conifer wood along with the very first eucalyptus tree I planted back in February 2006 .. sad to see it go but I planted three new small eucalyptus trees about a metre high in the new border so life goes on .
At this stage in the garden narrative I feel it is time to introduce ourselves and set out our “ mission statement ” as all the best introductory leaflets do !
The other half of Petrovska Garden and my own better half is Snezana Petrovska also known as Sanna … the name of the garden will be explained later but suffice to say at this stage I had no objection to it being known as the Michael O’Riordan Garden !
Snezana is a working customs officer from Copenhagen but who for the past 23 years has been seconded by the Danish Foreign Ministry to the EU , UN , OSCE , as a customs consultant working throughout the Balkans and Ukraine and was until May 2014 working with EULEX in Kosovo , she is currently working on peace keeping duties with OSCE in Eastern Ukraine based on the front line in Mariopol . Sanna loves gardening but refuses to learn anything formal about plants , trees or shrubs but has a mystical love of communing with nature . She currently is Head Designer Petrovska Garden , self appointed I might add and her one regret is that I won’t allow her to buy a chain saw as she loves to cut trees , branches etc.
PS She selected this photo for the garden blog which I took of her in New York about to go into the famous Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue …. my daughter Claire immediately commented on Facebook to the effect never mind about Snezana but WHO is the cool dude in the front of the photo and Snezana later fessed up that she picked this photo that because of her own unusual name people would assume the cool dude was my partner ?!!
When stationed in Northern Kosovo at Mitrovica in 2013 , the frontier post was under regular grenade attack from Serbs objecting to an independent Kosovo .
Daily Black Hawk helicopter patrols with NATO over the Kosovo border with Serbia in 2014
I am Michael O’Riordan also known as Eamonn when I was working with the Irish Revenue Commissioners . I am a retired customs officer who spent 20 years based at Rosslare Harbour and 15 years abroad working with the EU , UN , OSCE , as a customs consultant in Macedonia , Bosnia, Serbia , Montenegro , Croatia and the Seychelles Islands . I have been a gardener for almost 40 years now and my new title ( I always love a title ) is Head Gardener , Petrovska Garden .
Head Gardener Petrovska Garden in 2015
With the Seychelles Customs Service in 2008
In my big hair days with EU CAFAO , in Bosnia 2003
While seconded to the EU in Bosnia for ten years from 1996 I was assigned to the Brcko District in North Eastern Bosnia from 1998 to 2005 where the US State Department administered the region under the command of Ambassador Bill Farrand … Bill has Irish roots and we stayed in touch over the years and during his visit to Ireland in October 2016 with his wife Pam , sisters Beth and Nancy he stayed with us here and it was a great pleasure to meet him again .
How the garden got it’s name
Snezana and I could never agree on a name for the garden over the years as it took shape . At various times I suggested Willow Farm ..Olive Farm … Oakwood House … all equally pretentious … she never suggested a name of her own just kept vetoing my suggestions so we decided not to have a name . However after Mildred Stokes asked me to consider opening the garden to the public as part of the Tipperary Garden Trail in January 2011 I was contacted by Gerry Daly’s gardening website Garden,ie who asked to list the garden in their guide . Filling out the details for Garden .ie on the internet I entered the names of the owners as Michael O’Riordan and Snezana Petrovska – O’Riordan but left the garden name section blank and heard no more until back comes the listing as .. you’ve guessed it .. Petrovska Garden !
I could have edited the entry but decided that the computer knew something I didn’t know and had to acknowledge that she always supported the money going into the garden , tolerated listening to me prattling on about gardening all these years , japonica this japonica that without complaint …. so Petrovska Garden it is ….. she has earned it !
Sometimes though when on my own in the quietest part of the lower wood I have been known to sob quietly …. like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront … I coudda been a contender … it shoudda been me !!
My favourite gardening books
These days google search has taken the place of gardening books and one can find details of a plant or solve a gardening problem at the touch of a button but there are writers and gardening books that the internet can never replace .
This is a list of books written by gardeners that I was both influenced and inspired by to become a better gardener . These are books that I reread on a regular basis and am constantly learning from as the writers are also inspirational gardeners who are in turn outspoken and not afraid to go against the trend and another word to describe them might be mavericks !
- The Well Tempered Garden – Christopher Llyod This was the book published in 1976 just when I got my first garden which opened my eyes to gardening and showed me that gardening was a passion and one that could not be part time , all or nothing and a total lifetime commitment . Llyod took me away from pretty pretty style gardening of regimentalised summer flowers of blue lobelia alternated with white allysum and the odd rose to give height and where gardening began on May 1st and ended in October ! Christopher Llyod was cantankerous and at first did not fit into the established Royal Horticultural Society way of thinking but pursued his own vision of what HE wanted from his garden and I have every book he wrote , The Foliage Garden, The Adventurous Gardener , Succession planting for adventurous gardeners, Exotic plants for adventurous gardeners, Colour for adventurous gardeners etc. Llyod also loved what he called gardening thugs , plants that self seed prolifically like alchemis mollis which for a lot of gardeners are a pest but Llyod loved the fact that nature should be encouraged not managed or curtailed in his garden at Great Dixter in East Sussex and I have followed his philosophy for the past almost 40 years .
- Better Gardening – Robin Lane Fox A slim book published in 1986 with each chapter devoted to a series of plants and trees and I have used it ever since to check plants and plan purchases . I like a writer to be definite about his / her plant preferences and also their dislikes and Lane Fox nails his colours to the mast each time and takes no hostages where popular garden tastes are concerned . An interesting man , Lane Fox is an Oxford University Classics Professor who is the leading world expert on Alexander the Great , writes a weekly gardening column in the Observer but who regards his real love as his appointment as the Head Gardener in charge of the college gardens . I met and spoke to Lane Fox in July 2014 at the Carlow Garden Festival … they say you should never meet your heroes but this was one who did not disappoint .
- The Damp Garden , The Dry Garden , The Gravel Garden – Beth Chatto The plants person’s gardener whose books are like the bible for any gardener be they beginner or otherwise and who comes across as a lovely understated person without any axe to grind unlike Llyod who tended to take on the world . Essential to anyone’s collection of gardening books and I refer to her books on a regular basis and her book the Gravel Garden has become a classic.
- Real Gardening – Stephen Lacey This book by a Daily Telegraph Gardening writer has no special theme but his absolute love of gardening comes through on every page and after every reading his enthusiasm makes you want to rush out and start digging ! A pure joy to read .
- The Complete Book of Gardening – Dan Pearson This book is co – authored by Terence Conran the designer but his name is on the cover mainly because he commissioned and paid for the book . Dan Pearson is probably the best garden writer of today and there is an elegance about his writing but above all his sheer love of gardening comes through . Again he is a writer of definite tastes and not at all structured about his planting schemes always following a naturalistic theme . Other books of his worth having are Home Front in the Garden about his own garden and its development , Spirit … which is a bit airy fairy but worth reading just to see where an obsession with plants takes you but no matter how airy fairy Pearson’s passion for gardening comes through .Dan Pearson also writes a weekly gardening column for the Daily Telegraph and I buy all of his books as they come out .
- Helen Dillon- Gardening Book … divided into chapters covering all aspects of gardening . What makes this book different from many others offering similar advice is Dillon’s down to earth no nonsense advice . There is also another book of her collected articles she wrote for the Sunday Tribune which I use constantly . I have met her several times , the first time in August 2014 when I visited her own famous garden in Dublin and she very kindly gave me a shovel to dig up as much of her tetraplanax rex seedlings as I wanted and in person she is as enthusiastic and warm as her writing .
- The RHS Gardening Encyclopaedia …. Indispensable for every gardener’s book shelf and here you can look up every plant , tree or shrub … a huge book but definitely one to have … I inherited mine from the late Betty Walsh , a great gardener and friend .
- Monty Don – the Complete Garden Book …. If you go for just one book to cover all aspects of gardening from organic vegetable growing to flowers and shrubs then this book is probably the best . Don who presents Gardener’s World on the BBC is considered a TV gardener by many in the British gardening establishment but not by me and of course he is posh totty for lady gardeners of a certain age ! He is a complex individual and a brilliant TV presenter who manages to convey his total enthusiasm for gardening in a believable way .
- John Brooke –The Small Garden was published in the 196o’s and still in print today , a testimony to the generation of gardeners who came to rely on his design ideas which are laid out in easy to understand text accompanied by marvelous photos . John Brooke is the gardeners garden designer and was the designer to coin the phrase “a room outside ” when describing the garden . His book Garden Masterclass was given to me by my son , Kevin, in 2004 and is the source I return to on a regular basis for ideas . If it is to check on the height of stone walls, type of path surfaces , garden containers and furniture this is the book for you and the photographs are sumptous .
Bear in mind that my personal style of gardening is “ wild “ gardening and that I like to maintain the garden just at the edge of going over into wildness and my choice of plants , shrubs and trees reflect this . I am not into flowers or flowering shrubs as such as I find them too limited in what you get back over a long period and my view is that if my chosen tree or shrub flowers then that is an added bonus but it will not be selected on that basis .
In the antique trade they talk about an item having to ” wash it’s face ” which is to earn enough when selling on to cover the cost of all expenses in acquiring the piece in the first place and for me a shrub or tree has to perform throughout the year with good leaf and foliage in the growing season coupled with strong bark colour in the winter which is why I am not a big fan of one trick ponies that flower for a limited period and then nada for the rest of the year .
I love big leaved dramatic foliage plants such as gunneras , hostas and rodgersias as they add structure and interest to the garden while giving that wild exotic look .
Gunnera is the plant you want for that dramatic WOW factor !
Gunnera likes to be beside water but not in water … somewhere moist where the roots can seek out water but the plant itself likes to have dry feet …. a little shade or at least not full sun is best …. find those conditions and the gunnera will reward you with leaves a metre across . Even if you have a dryish garden don’t give up on the idea of having gunnera … I grew them successfully in my Rosslare Strand garden for over fifteen years as you can see from the photo taken in 1990 with my kids in the foreground but it meant putting a hose on them for an hour every few days throughout the summer months … the hose was put on the gunnera not on Claire , Kev, Dave & Diarm I hasten to add !!
I used to love New Zealand phormiums and cordyline trees and they were the first plants in almost every planting scheme of mine over the years but like everyone else I lost most of them ( over 50 phormiums alone ) in the two hard winters of 2010 / 2011 and would never trust their hardiness again .
Three of mine survived those awful winters and if you have a sheltered sunny spot in your garden ( sheltered is a necessity ) phormiums are absolutely gorgeous throughout the year .
Perennials — big leaved grey/ green hostas ( siboldiana Elegans & Francis Williams variety ), Darmera ( chinese rhubarb or umbrella plant ) , rodgersia , crocosima aka montebretia , heleborus corsicus but the olive green leaf colour variety as it looks great throughout much of the year , euphorbias particlulary the variety characais which is almost a weed in its native Mediterranean but is a fabulous all year round foliage plant with our climate , any mischantus grass but the variety Gracelissimus I recommend , giant purple fennel, acanthus both the spiky spinosa variety and the normal leaf .
One of my favourite plants for all year round display is euphorbia wulfeni which is the largest of the euphorbias . The first time I saw this plant was in the 1970’s when I read my first serious gardening book , the Reader’s Digest Gardening Year and saw a photo of a grand big house garden and there growing out of the middle of some granite slabs on a patio was this glaucus green leafed plant with golden bracts which was described as a statuesque foliage plant and I was hooked immediately . Had no clue what it was and any garden centre I asked had no clue either but a few years later at a garden plant sale for a local charity sitting on a trestle table was a 5 inch seedling planted up in a paper cup and the old lady who had donated it from her garden told me it was euphorbia wulfeni !
From that one seedling I populated my then garden in Rosslare and it now self seeds itself everywhere in this garden particularly into gravel and indeed a feature of euphorbia is that like buddleias it prefers to grow in cracks of walls and paving and does not like a rich diet . In the wild it grows all over the Mediterranean especially along the Adriatic coast of Croatia where locals regard it as a weed and wouldn’t have it in their gardens which just proves the old gardening saying that a weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place . There are all sorts of cultivated euphorbias for sale now in garden centres and gardeners are spoiled for choice with dwarf ones and even variegated versions with the trend for smaller plants as people don’t have space in their gardens but for me the large green euphorbia wulfeni is still the best .
Trees & shrubs — Silver birch jaquemonti , sorbus moonbeam var. lutescens ( mountain ash ) , cornus elegantissimus ( silver/ cream variegated dogwood ) , cornus controversa ( layer cake tree ) , Tillia ( lime /linden tree ), melianthus major , pampas grass var. christophe (which flowers in July August ) , salix purpurea ( a grafted weeping purple willow ), all bamboos but black stemmed if possible , rhus cotinus var. Grace ( aka the burning bush ) , sambucus nigra ( black elder ) .
Latin names of plants ?
It is worth getting to know the latin names of plants , not just the common names , as all over the world from the US to China and Japan a plant is known firstly by its latin name which is the linqua franca ( OK the common world wide language !) of the plant world . It may sound pretentious and a little intimidating and I know it did to me when I was starting out in gardening and while local names are fine the problem is that every country has its own local name so it can be tricky to identify a plant you fall in love with abroad and want to try and source at home . Of course there are the snobs of the garden world that like to intimidate and show off but by and large real gardeners are helpful and will go out of their way to assist and even share plants and slips . My assistant here in the garden ( aka Sanna ) resolutely refuses to learn the latin names and maintains that it is a load of pretentious crap and maintains that you can get away with calling a plant uxi / cuxi/ coxi ( the a b c of the Finnish alphabet ) by adding the word japonica after it … you have been warned so if you meet her in the garden ……
To maintain a life long interest in gardening you need a philosophy , a theme if you like , that you work towards , not a topical trend as for example heathers … who plants the 1970’s big expanses of heathers coupled with tall slim line conifers now ?
You start out like every budding gardener with annuals and build up to perennials and basically you learn about plants , what they like and dislike , soil conditions and how not to fight nature and try to force plants to grow in impossible locations but then you begin to learn that on the right plant right place principle there is a plant for every location . You get and read a few self help garden books or look up a few gardening sites on the internet , start watching TV Garden programmes like Monty Don on Gardener’s World every Friday night at 8 pm on BBC Two .
You experiment with cottage garden , perennial beds , invest in a few trees for structure etc. and in the process lose a few plants and trees and suddenly it all clicks together … you are now ready for your future interest in gardening … if you are lucky by which I mean a lot of people get stuck at this stage in that they have reached an acceptable level of knowledge where your garden thrives and you don’t lose anymore plants , you keep the lawn mowed regularly on a Saturday morning , dead head a few roses every now and then , have a few insightful garden phrases and complain about black spot and green fly … but that’s it for the next 40 years , you don’t progress …. to the end of his life my Father was a white alyssum/ blue lobelia in strict rotation man and was appalled at my wild gardening efforts which he found very untidy and messy …. to each his/her own !
The next level is to develope your own personal philosophy and your gardening theme … mine is unashamedly naturalistic wild gardening , no regimented wide expanses of perennial planting with each dead headed regularly or succession planting up to October and definitely no roses !
I let my plants fight it out for space as in nature and only prune back if there is serious overflowing onto the paths that make it difficult to push through . Vita Sackville West , the creator of what is England’s greatest garden , Sissinghurst , once said that her gardening philosophy could be summed up as ” cram , cram , cram ” and while I also follow that principle I like to feel that I keep the garden on the edge of wildness … as Dolly Parton once said ” to get this trashy look ain’t cheap ” nor is gardening my dear !!
I said no roses and that is because I got fed up in the early years losing the battle against black spot which disfigures roses in this country and I tried everything from Jeyes Fluid without success and as for dead heading , this was a real pain in the ass as I had over 200 roses at one time … and then there was the green fly and there is nothing more disgusting in my view than a beautiful rose crawling with green fly … not worth the hardship involved so no roses !
That said there are exceptions and I grow one variety of rose here and I love it … the old fashioned rosa rugosa with its white and pink flower varieties followed by beautiful rose hips . This is a serious foliage plant with its beautiful glaucus green leaf and easy forgiving nature , you can cut it to the ground every spring with a chain saw and back it comes by July as beautiful as ever … and NO black spot or green fly !
An important element in every gardener’s progression is to visit other gardens and learn from their owners . I don’t mean the large Mount Cosgrave type of estate but the smaller private gardens where you pick up great tips about planting combinations and the likes and dislikes of various plants which you can then put into practice in your own garden .
And along the way you need to get used to being wet, muddy , tired and cold , fingers numb ……it is not all sunshine out there !
My gardening style
I always use trees and shrubs that contribute a combination of good leaf colour and bark so you get a plant of year round interest and I use the immediate back garden area to demonstrate to visitors how colour and interest can be achieved without a slavish devotion to flowering trees , shrubs etc.
I do admire and love nice flowering shrubs such as magnolia or rhododendron when in bloom but generally I am not a great lover of flowers or flowering shrubs or trees as I find the return disappointing as you normally get only three weeks in flower and then you are stuck with this drab looking plant for the rest of the summer such as the flowering cherry trees which are great in bloom but one burst of wind or frost and you can lose all the flowers for another year .
There are exceptions of course with plants that are so spectacular in flower however fleeting that they are worth their place in the garden not that I have any of them ! For me a plant has to perform for nine months and for that flowering takes second place .. I have a gardening friend who rings and says come over quickly so and so is in bloom and by the time you get there the thing has either been knocked over by the wind or the rain and is disappointing … not for me and give me interesting leaf and bark colour any day !
Likewise I don’t invest in trees or shrubs that are sold mainly for autumnal colours as again you have to live with a drab tree for eight months waiting for that magical burst of leaf colour in November when the weather may be too bad to go out to admire it anyway . … if a tree or shrub has great autumnal colour well that’s a bonus for me but it is not my primary reason in selecting it .
One tree that should be in every garden is the red oak leaf acer , a maple that is no trouble to grow , has a great shape , is not tender like the dwarf purple varieties and the leaf colour in autumn is to die for .
The other principle I garden with is right plant right place and while you will get away with a certain amount of breaking the rules … generally never try and squeeze a plant into a location ( windy , deep shade etc.) or type of soil ( too dry, wet or boggy ) that it doesen’t like as it will be unhappy , won’t thrive and ultimately will die on you .
Generally if a plant hasen’t thrived or put on growth after a year in its first position I dig it out and move it to another location as my experience has been that an unhappy tree or shrub will soldier on for a few years never putting on any growth , looking miserable and then give up .
Sometimes inexplicably moving a plant even a short space of a metre will do the trick and the plant will take off .
Now having said that I don’t bother with flowering plants , I do admire them in other people’s garden and the work that goes in to their maintenance , the weeding and hard work that goes into maintaining beds of perennials etc. I would love to have the type of soil to grow perennials , nice crumbly soil but I have had two gardens in my life , Clonmel and Rosslare and in both I have had poor quality wet ground where it was like cutting turf when planting but you get on with what you have and my natural preference has from the beginning been foliage plants planted in a naturalistic style .
My top five trees or shrubs for impact over a long period would be the Silver Birch jaquemontii , Black Elder ( Sambucus nigra ) , Red Dogwood ( cornus elegantissimus ) , Rhus Cotinus Grace and Melianthus Major . I have left out the gorgeous Japanese Maple Acer Griseum ( paper bark maple ) as I have had no luck growing it on our heavy soil .
My gardening style here in Clonmel is also governed by the fact that the garden is visited regularly by deer from the mountain particularly in the lower fields away from the house and I often come across up to five young doe at a time grazing away and unfortunately at various times of the year they eat away at trees particularly young trees which has limited me in that I no longer plant specimen trees in those areas … and you never know what they will eat as I have had trees they have left alone for years and you think you have got away with it and then come out some morning and the tree is eaten down to a stump .
Deer never just eat the leaves which I wouldn’t mind but they can attack the base of a young tree and strip away the bark ( for the sugar content in the sap ) and the tree dies . The problem here is that the garden has been a wilderness for centuries and the deer roam over it as part of their natural habitat and while I do love to see them when I walk around but I wish they would go somewhere else for their take aways !
Sometimes they get very brazen and I have seen them outside the back window and I gather they regard me as a pussy cat with my ineffectual shouting shoo , shoo !
I took this photo from the kitchen window when five young deer were in the gravel garden snacking on alpines … brazen or what !
Photography in the garden
You don’t need to be a photographer to be a good gardener in fact you don’t need to even have a camera but it helps enormously to display your garden at its best moments throughout the seasons if you can take some nice photos and it is also a great record to keep as the garden developes … for me gardening and photography go hand in hand .
My second hobby after gardening has been photography and I quickly progressed from my first instamatic kodak camera to a compact canon back in the early 1970’s until I made the step up to 35 mm with my first SLR which was a Pentax . Back then there were five major camera systems, Canon, Minolta , Pentax , Nikon and Olympus but really then as now you were in one of two camps i.e. Canon or Nikon and I have been a Nikon man since I bought my first Nikon SLR in 1976 and currently I have an SLR Nikon 5300 which I use at different times depending on the situation with a 50 mm , 28 to 80 mm zoom or an 80 to 200 mm zoom .
The introduction of digital photography has transformed how we use cameras since 2005 and you can shoot as much as you like then edit down to few photos you might want to retain . I carry the camera with me each day in the garden as the light changes constantly and of course in your own garden you have all the best camera angles worked out in your mind .
I used to also carry a compact camera with me and occaisionally still do for snap shots of animals in the garden where you don’t get a second chance of that special moment when a deer or badger might wander into view but I prefer the quality I get with an SLR for all serious photographs where I can capture the exact lighting and composition and even though it is heavier and more bulky to carry around than a compact I prefer the extra quality over portability every time .
Sometimes of course you just get lucky when the controls are set wrongly or as in this case you accidently kick the tripod just as you press the shutter and the general blurriness makes for an atmospheric photo in the water garden !
A good camera with a long lens also allows up close and personal photos of flowers with detail and colour you don’t always see with the normal eye but the long lens will isolate and highlight these and you realise the beauty you might not always be aware of .
The camera also allows you to highlight smaller flowers whose beauty sometimes goes unnoticed such as this close up of a helleborus from the back garden .
When Flossie , our dog , by a miracle actually caught a rabbit , my compact recorded the moment in a shot you couldn’t stage as she walked past me smirking triumphantly as if to say when did you ever chase down one of these ?!!
Flossie , a stray of 57 varieties , adopted us twelve years ago when she followed Snezana home from outside Superquinn in Clonmel the first weekend after we moved into the house in November 2000 …. I protested that it was unfair to give a stray the hope of a permanent home as we were leaving again for Bosnia in two days but Snezana thought we would give her some love and affection for at least two days …. we left early on the Monday morning and I thought well that’s that for the dog .
Our next visit back to Ireland was in six months time and when we pulled up outside the house Flossie was waiting for us ! She had moved up to Irene & Liam , our neighbours when we had left but obviously didn’t forget us and then came back to stay with us every time we came home over the next eight years until finally I came home for good and Flossie moved in permanently .
She came everywhere with us and we loved her to bits
Slept in the bedroom
Was naturally vigilant … as can be seen from her normal fearsome defensive position !
She tolerated me but Snezana was her pet
Sadly Flossie passed away five years ago and is buried in the garden … we miss her a lot .
After that diversion into biographies , gardening likes and dislikes , themes and philosophies etc. we can now resume the Petrovska Garden narrative !
September 2013 New Borders in the top field
Although I was never interested in having long borders of flowers in my own gardens I always admired the tapestry of colour and shape of perennial beds in other people’s gardens plus the intensive work needed to maintain a large perennial bed but then I never had suitable soil in my previous gardens for such perennial beds .
However in September / October 2013 I opened up two new long borders by the path in the top field as I had by accident discovered that the soil seemed perfect for a wide variety of plants and I set out one border as more or less tall grass perennials ( miscanthus ) and a selection of pampas grass , the normal type and the variety Ricardii , some specimen bamboo while in the opposite border a selection of eleagnus and hydrangea and other woody type plants went in but then we had almost three months of rain where the new borders were permanently water logged with the result that I had underestimated how water retentive the new area was and lost a large amount of the new planting .
To be honest it was pure luck that I discovered that the soil although wet was really good at this top end of the field as I had more or less written it off as too wet and had planted a group of three silver birch originally in the corner which never did much apart from looking miserable for a few years and then popped their clogs entirely in the winter of 2012 . On digging them out I discovered that the problem with the silver birch was not water logged conditions but just that they were bad specimens from the grower in the first place who had chopped back their roots to almost nothing to keep the trees compact for repotting …. this is the major problem with buying root balled trees direct from a nursery as the growers prune ruthlessly and as in my case leave almost nothing for the plant to take off from and this was not an isolated case for me as I have had several “ bad “ trees over the years , always direct from growers and in one case seven silver birch died and I have had three lime trees planted for eight years and it is only last year they started to put on some growth ….. same problem as when moving them on a few years back I saw the tiny root base left on the trees and as a result I rarely buy root balled trees now .
This photo of the initial planting does prove that you have to be an eternal optimist to be a gardener ….. or as I prefer to put it It’s da vision thang my Dear !!
But hope springs eternal for the gardener and real growth started throughout 2014
I started cautiously on the plant selection in the new beds staying safe with plants that like heavy soil but then as growth started to bulk up and the soil dried out I went for the Vita Sackville West advice of cram cram cram and now there is a huge selection of iris , bamboo , gunnera , hostas along with most of the plant donations I regularly receive from gardener friends found a home there …. but the backbone planting here has been the grasses , miscanthus , pampas and they are thriving and all along the borders I have added eucalyptus trees which I pollard each year to keep the juvenile foliage and their strong green leaves go very well among the grasses and perennials .
We added structure to the new beds in July 2014 by designing three pergolas and this gave a real shape to the new area …. mind you the path through the pergolas led nowhere but we solved this in May 2015 with a ” new vision thang !
How it looks two years after planting in July 2015
And a year later in October 2016
New paths in a design update in the Lower Field May 2015
As I said previously a garden is evolving constantly and here at Old Spa Road one project suggested another and as you can see in this narrative things happened incrementally and one idea sparked another. I was never happy with the design of the lower field area and I felt that nothing really came together design wise and it really was just a big park with paths around it’s edge which I planted with the usual mix that works well in the conditions here i.e. wet so lots of cornus’, silver birch , rugosa roses , eucalyptus which have grown away steadily over the last seven years .
My original plan for this area back in 2006 when we first cleared it was to fill the space with an orchard and I planted 36 apple trees in 2007 on home leave from the Seychelles but the deer ate most of the trees while I was away and the wet ground did for the rest … back to the drawing board for a suitable design in the Lower Field but a project kept on the back burner for the next seven years .
However one morning in January of 2015 while planting some dog woods in the field and at the same time trying to avoid walking on it as little as possible due to the water logged state I got the idea that as it was a park and one which due to the wet conditions in the winter months was unwalkable so why not accept this and put an all weather path through it to be able to at least use it in the winter and the obvious route was down to the focal point of the red bridge so I cut an outline out with the lawn mower and invited some design input from friends and fellow gardeners .
Mildred Stokes walked the area in February 2015 and said if it was her garden she would run the path through the pergolas and down into the garden that way …. which at first I didn’t like but gradually saw that by combining her path and my own more direct one that it could work and besides the pergola grass walk led nowhere but ended rather aimlessly in the field … a nice walk nonetheless but practical ?
I had huge doubts over this project which is unusual for me as I am normally pretty definite once I get the initial idea but here the potential new paths were over 400 metres long … was it a path too far , would it be disastrous and f..k up the top field and I mulled over a decision for two months and finally decided this was the way to go … two paths joining up … but still not fully sure that it wasen’t a gigantic mistake and with Snezana’s usual ” wait until I come home ” ringing in my ears and along with her usual “ if I dont ’t like it I won’t pay for it ” which is her default reaction if a decision is taken while she is abroad but ominously for the first time also adding “ if I don’t like it I want you to put it back the way it was ” … no pressure then and with all this hanging over my head I gave Peter the go ahead and in came the diggers and as I wrote in my blog at the time ” the diggers are back in town ” .. and even throughout the first day as the diggers were tearing up the field I was wondering should we stop !
However by the end of the first day with the outline of the two paths I knew it was the right decision ….. squeaky bum time as Alex Ferguson was fond of saying as this was the first time for me that paths were a design feature in their own right rather than just connecting A to B with a bit of a curve thrown in for the aesthetic look of it .
My neighbours have a look !
Sometimes when a neighbour stops to chat he gets a job !
Day by day as the work progressed I could see that the path design had added something to the top field and now it had a designed look and I was happy with it for the first time in eight years since we began the design and construction of the lower garden area .
And how it looked three years later in August 2018
A by product of the work was the creation of a small pond when digging out a small channel to take away excess water from an underground spring that had come to the surface two winters ago , leaked out onto the main path down to the garden and made it virtually impassable during December to March . I had earlier dug a make shift channel with the spade and even this greatly relieved the water leaking out to the path so with Peter here with the digger decided to do a proper job … we had been in Petra in March 2015 and saw the way the ancient Nabataens had channelled run off water throughout the city with above ground open stone culverts about a ten inches wide so why not use it beside our path ?
Again with the principle of one thing evolving into another I could see there was scope for something extra along with the concrete culverts and with a few scoops of the digger’s shovel we were able to make a holding pool out of which the culverts would run the excess water across to the natural pond and we then dug out a few willows to give a new view out onto the new paths and a new feature was born !
We were able to get away without the expense of adding a pond liner as the earth retained the water which was constant now from the underground source and even in summer when the water slowed to a trickle the pond level has held and over the summer months I lined the new pond’s edge with natural stone from a wall my neighbour , Sebastian Boisson , had knocked down and then added some marginal water plants such as caltha , marsh marigold and some calla lilies and even a small gunnera and then tossed in some iris divisions to give some structure to the planting and then a pot for extra height with some lamium chablis variety for all year round colour .
The path project started with great reservations but it was a great success and I can’t imagine the Lower Field now without these new paths .
Post script and just to show you that taste can change … a year later I changed my mind about the natural stone on the grass edge as I began to see it as too prettyish and not in keeping with the natural wild look and too small in scale for the large grass area it led on to so in October 2016 I took it out and left the grass run right up to the edge of the pond and rebuilt the stone along the side .
The revamped pool in October 2016
And as we mentioned Petra I ‘ll stay on that theme for the next photos !
Petrovska Garden is advertised in Petra March 2015
Sometimes I needed a little help in Petra … I know I look a right wimp but it was high … honest !
Snezana feels this is the macho ideal I must aim for … at Kerak Crusader Castle in Jordan
And we took the Petrovska t shirt on holidays
Petrovska Garden does Croatia !
Amman , Jordan , February 2014
The Chain Saw Gang , Christian, Peter and Snezana , a wet July day 2015
As I have said many times a garden never stops evolving and even if you are just into a maintenance free garden and little else or have the smallest of patches , trees , plants , shrubs , all grow …. or should grow ( ! ) and in a few years the garden will have changed naturally .
In which case you need to hard prune as the shade from quick growing trees can dramatically alter the landscape without you noticing it and with that in mind about twice a year we get Peter in for a few days just to wield the chain saw … Snezana regards all such operations in the woodland , which tree to thin out etc. are her exclusive domain and I am relegated to the clean up afterwards … one such day was July 15th 2015 the team embarked on one of their periodical tree felling operations with Peter as usual wielding the chain saw and Snezana as Officer in Charge !
At times like this when Snezana is fully in charge of operations I almost feel sorry for Peter as the easy going relaxed atmosphere we have built up in working together over ten years with regular breaks for tea and chat goes out the window as Snezana does things in an almost Teutonic regimented manner , well she is part Danish (!) and as Peter gets out of the landrover at the agreed time she is waiting impatiently to start work …. JA ?!!
No cups of tea then but off immediately and few if any breaks throughout the day with the chain gang and tea is served only if I bring it down to them and reluctantly she allows a break of a few minutes ….. once during this particular session I visited the work and asked Peter if he’d like a cup of tea …. Jesus I ‘d love a cup was the fevered reply !!
As always we never use wood cut from the garden for the fire and instead stack it into housing projects for the wild life which is great from an eco point of view but also looks good in a wild environment .
Along with the piles of stacked wood throughout the garden we are constantly adding pots etc. and any other quirky items we can lay our hands on as we have a lot of space and little nooks and crannies which can be added to with focal points of interest and over the years have gathered items we feel add to the atmosphere and ambience of a wild garden and I particularly love these agricultural wheels and milk churns donated by my neighbours .
Michael and Marta Hryshyshyn , friends from our days together in Bosnia when Michael and I worked with the Bosnian State Border Commission , visited and stayed with us in April 2012 and on their return to Washington sent us this piece of artwork for the wood .
Our neighbour from the laneway , Sebastian Boisson , donated this old farm wheel from his farm , in 2014
And I particularly love this old stone quern sourced in Clare for us by Pauline Hegarty in July 2014
My particular pride and joy is an old ancient stone trough which I found in the Architectural Salvage Yard in Kilkenny in 2009 .
A memory from my time in Sarajevo , Bosnian car registration plates
Pots also evolve , get broken and are replaced as was the case here with a lovely one off pot bought at the Kiltrea Pottery closing down sale and which was burst apart by the rampant growth of a hosta that was left too long before dividing .
New pots arrive
And garden seats give up the ghost also
Work in the garden continues on a daily basis no matter what the weather
Media interest in Petrovska Garden
From the beginning I had photographed each stage of the garden developement and kept an electronic file of each project and as I was always interested in making a permanent record it seemed a natural progression to set up a web site for Petrovska Garden and to write a gardening blog for anyone out there who might be interested … enter Liam Burke with his IT skills who we contacted to design a web site and one evening in October 2013 Liam sat down with Snezana and myself , we told him what we wanted and he showed us what could be done and within a few days we were up and running at www.petrovskagarden.com … Liam has been a godsend with advice and technical know how and we are delighted with the design and lay out of the site .
Visit of Gerry Daly , the Editor of The Irish Garden July 2014
When I first started writing the gardening blog in November 2013 I sent it to Gerry Daly , Editor of the Irish GardenMagazine and he got in touch to say he would like to visit the garden … Gerry arrived in July 2014 and spent a day with us ….. he came , saw , took over 400 photos and left without saying anything at all about the garden itself … not even a mildly enthusiastic or even luke warm comment which I understand is typical Gerry as in a long career as garden writer , TV presenter , Gerry has seen it all , met all the gardening greats , visited the great gardens of Europe etc. but we had a great day with him and chatted about all things gardening
Snezana before he left , unable to restrain herself had asked him if the garden was what he expected and his reply was non commital ” yeah I had looked at the photos beforehand on the web site so had an idea what to expect ” ……. not exactly over the moon !!
After he left I never heard a word from Gerry … nada …. until exactly a year later in mid July 2015 I got a phone call from him out of the blue saying he’s be sending the writer , Shirley Lannigan down to Clonmel to do an interview with us with a view to an article in the Irish Garden magazine !!!
Great excitement of course and Shirley arrived a week later to walk the garden and get as Gerry Daly put it ” the human interest story ” .
Shirley , an established author with two books on irish gardens , published in 2003 and 2007 , was an excellent interviewer who seemingly without any effort got all the facts and narrative of the garden from it’s beginning .
The September 2015 issue of Irish Garden Magazine gave six pages to Petrovska Garden !
Interestingly both Gerry and Shirley saw the value of not being afraid of Japanese knotweed and if you have it use it for height and design … a point Gerry had made with his photo of the arched tunnel of Knotweed linking the back garden to the lower area and which Shirley also highlighted in her article …. and yes she was more than fair to both of us in the article although my son , Kevin , summed it up by saying “ Dad we thought you might get carried away with your usual plant bull shit but who would have thought Sanna would be the one to come across as the tree hugger of all time ” !!
We had set out to build a garden and this media recognition by the Irish Garden magazine seemed to be the culmination of all our work since we first put a spade into the soil on January 6th 2006 ……. little did we know how much work we were chewing off !!
I designed a new label in September 2015 for Snezana’s self seeding plants potted up as gifts .
The October 2015 edition of Munster Interiors , a quarterly House & Home magazine featured the garden in a beautiful spread .. the Editor , Ruth had contacted me two days after the Gerry Daly feature in The Irish Gardener was published in late August and said the magazine would like to feature the garden in their October issue … we were delighted and even more so that my own photographs were used throughout the article .. with respect to Gerry Daly’s photos which were lovely , nobody knows your own garden like yourself and of course I have the entire year and all lighting variations to capture the various areas at their best .
After the excitement of two magazine articles within a month it was back to earth with a bang in the garden with the nasty job of bramble clearance !
October 2015 … the last remaining area of brambles in the garden was just inside the lower garden
It was the last remaining area in the garden covered in brambles which we had not reclaimed and I had convinced myself that the wild life needed this wilderness patch but of course it was pure laziness on my part as it is a nasty job clearing brambles especially when they are three metres high and spread out over a 20 square metre area but in late August 2015 I bit the bullet and set off with my trusty strimmer and cut and burnt the bejazus out of them !
What to do ?
Starting the clean up I had no idea what we could do with the new area and had vaque ideas of perhaps a vegetable patch ?
Standing in the newly cleared area which was now cleaned down to the soil and realising how full of light it was and what a lovely view was now available looking down the woodland garden the solution was obvious … a paved seating area which would allow the sunlit area to be enjoyed for relaxed outdoor living , throw in some nice garden furniture while paving with rough indian sandstone would add to the natural look .
The story of the garden , one thing leads to another and a pergola is added December 2015
And how it looks a year later in September 2016
The Clonmel Nationalist features the garden in it’s December 3rd 2015 weekly newspaper
2015 was a good year for media features on Petrovska Garden
There is one area of the garden I haven’t mentioned so far and that is the long narrow stretch behind the house which leads across to the back garden , a service area really as here we have the washing line and two garden sheds and which has been gravelled from the beginning in March 2006 . Over the years this area has attracted self seedings of alchemis Mollis and euphorbia which I transplanted to other sections of the garden but gradually I saw that the area had possibilities other than just a walkway as it enjoyed full sun and because of the gravel base had good drainage …… I planted up some old tin baths , gradually built up a small collection of one of one off pots and added various alpines and sedums and the Gravel Garden hasen’t looked back since and in May 2015 the antique stone trough bought years ago at the Kilkenny Salvage Yard and which has been moving unsatisfactorily around various locations in the garden finally found it’s real home in the Gravel Garden .
An exotic ethiopian banana tree arrives
And old enemies relax here !
Location , location , location … it helps that our garden is set in a most beautiful area of Co. Tipperary , at the foot of the Comeragh mountains in the valley of the Suir just outside Clonmel looking across at Slievenamon .
Just to remind you and ourselves what we started with in March 2006
Photo from the same position nine years later in July 2015
Probably the photograph we both feel represents the garden best is the view from the round window in the Garden Room , the design of which our architect , Anne Berney , took from her studies in Japan where a large round window is known as the Mother window .
The view in early March 2006
Ten year’s later
A familiar theme … a garden is constantly evolving February 2016
I was walking down the path in the top field on a cold bleak January morning when I realised we needed some impact in late winter and also some additional height for structure as the garden is sloping slightly downwards here and needed a row of tall trees and what better impact plant in all seasons but especially in winter , silver birch was the only choice and in February 2016 we installed a line of nine fairly mature silver birch jacquemontii along the new path in the top field as I felt that they would lift the area especially in Winter where the white bark would be a striking feature .
I continued the planting in November 2016 by adding a further seven silver along the other path as the two paths lined with silver birch would complement each other .
Shay Healy visited the garden with his family in April 2016 and wrote about it in his weekly column in the Irish Daily Mail under the heading “ Garden shelter from the storms of life ”. Shay is a legend of Irish show business over the past forty years and wrote the winning song in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1980 with “ What’s another Year ” and his interviews in Nashville with such country stars as Tammy Wynette are available on YouTube .
I grew up watching Shay Healy on Irish television and in 1990 his TV show , Night Hawks , broke a political story about phone tapping political journalists which brought down the government at the time and precipitated a General Election … so it is fair to say that Shay has been there , done that and it was a real treat to host him here . I was delighted at the way he used his description of the garden in his subsequent column in the national press to weave a personal story … and as someone commented to me on reading the story he really caught the spirit of what we have set out to achieve here in the creation of the garden .
Shay let fly with some purple prose in the article “ Michael doesen’t do any physical work . He is like a musical conductor – he raises the baton and the orchestra which is his wild garden comes to life in a symphony of sights and sounds celebrating all living things . Bushes and trees , odd statuary , garden benches and even old rusty bikes deployed in an artful way , adding a layer of carefully placed eccentricity ” …. kind words but would that it were true that I don’t have do any physical work Shay !!
End of major garden projects ?
I hesitate to say it but as I write in late November 2016 we seem to have reached the stage where the last of the major garden construction projects has finally finished but of course there are ongoing tweaks here and there where we can improve areas and in May 2016 I redesigned the rock garden area importing some large stones that were previously in other locations .
The final touches added in July 2016
I am always on the search for antique or unusual items for the gardenand 2016 saw some new additions
The cannon ball I sourced at the Kilkenny Architectural Salvage Yard , it was found on the sea bed by a diver in 2016 at Rosslare Fort in Wexford Harbour where it had lain undisturbed for over 350 years and was fired by a British Navy ship during Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in October 1649 .
This huge piece of pitch pine was under water in the river Liffey at the Dublin Dock wharf for over 150 years and was part of a batch offerred for sale during renovation works and now sits in the Lower Garden .
In February 2016 Pascal Mansfield was reconstructing the old Bianconi House in Clonmel ‘s Main Guard and donated two trailer loads of stone from the 200 year old chimney which otherwise was being thrown out and which I was able to use to build five raised beds in the Lower Garden … contrary to my usual inept building skills I can actually build dry stone walls and this is my own work !
One of the new raised stone beds planted up July 2016
But for the more intricate skilled work in the garden Peter Cullen is always the main man … as when building a stone circle around a red oak tree in the Lower Garden in November 2016 .
The final product November 2016 !
The work to keep the garden in shape never ends nor would we want it to and while it is a daily grind to maintain grass , keep weeds down in the borders and along over a kilometre of gravel paths, thin and prune on a regular basis , we both love it and get huge enjoyment from it .
And Toby does help out with the watering in summer .
While reading through the narrative of the garden you will have noticed that blue is a colour we like to use on garden furniture and pots and even dead trees get painted with it !
And that ….. dear readers is the journey we took to build the Garden over the past ten years , that journey continues and already the next chapter is being written !!
You can keep up to date with future progress by reading the regular blogs at www.petrovskagarden.com
The story continues , new trees are planted in the top field as I try to make it more intimate following the building of new paths through it in May 2015 and in the months October 2016 to February 2017 I planted seventeen park land trees such as oak and various beech which will add a canopy of cover as they mature and all the trees were selected on the basis that they will do well in the wet soil of an area which is fed by underground springs , good soil but definitely not dry so right plant right place principle at work here .
In Spring 2017 I realised that the banks of cornus planted nine years ago needed some drastic cutting back as I had allowed them to become old and knarly , some with stems as thick as my wrist and they had outlived their purpose and although I loved the leaf colour particularly that of cornus elegantissimus , their winter bark a major part of the attraction of dog woods generally had lost their vibrancy and were no longer their youthful snappy colours … none of us do ! However unlike with getting old ourselves dog woods and most shrubs can be rejuvenated by cuting down to the base so I bit the bullet and cut back severely … not to be recommended as a general rule and it should be done gradually by removing a third of the growth on a yearly basis but these had got out of hand or more to the point I had allowed myself to be distracted … the end result was a general massacre of the dog woods … and it worked as by August 2017 they had put on over a metre of young growth and are looking great again .
July 2017 a new book , The Open Gardens of Ireland
Shirley Lannigan who has written several gardening books and who is a regular contributer to The Irish Garden magazine published a new book in July 2017 , The Open Gardens of Ireland and included Petrovska Garden
Garden Charity Open Day for Clonmel Lion’s Club , July 24th 2017
Since first opening the garden to the public in 2012 we have been part of the Tipperary Garden Trail which coordinates all seven participating gardens to open for charity for two days on the last weekend in June and delighted we were to be asked to take part however over the years the fixed June weekend did not suit our particular schedules so this year we decided to leave the Garden Trail and hold the annual fund raising event for the Lion’s Club as a pop up event on one day instead of over two days as in previous years , we were lucky with the weather and the people of Clonmel came out in droves with over 300 people visiting the garden and 2000 euros was collected for the very worthy local Clonmel charity , Riding for the Disabled .
Snezana and I prepared the garden but the real work was done by the two fabulous committees who set up a marquee , organised face painting and Fairy doors , baked cakes ,scones and buns , made tea and coffee on a scale not seen since the loaves and fishes back in biblical times
The local Clonmel group Strange Things and Twiggy who sang their hearts out for free and the well known Kilkenny gardening writer , Shirley Lannigan, introduced her new book The Open Gardens of Ireland and made herself available for questions on gardening throughout the afternoon .
There was a terrific ambience and laid back feeling about the day , everybody enjoyed themselves and providing our garden as a back drop for such an event and for such a worthy cause confirmed all our feelings about why we created the garden in the first place back in 2006 .
And a cheque for 2000 euros was presented by the Lions Club to the local Clonmel charity , Riding for the disabled on August 8th 2017 .
Part of the attraction of opening a garden to the public is that you meet fellow gardeners and share experiences in growing different plants and shrubs and while we get most of our visitors in the months of June to August we also get a number of people right up to November and the only months we regard as closed would be December , January and February .
As part of the Facebook page for the garden I throughout the year occasionally post a feature called A Walk in the Garden where during the course of one day I photograph about twelve photos of various areas that appeal to me on that particular day and the latest is A Walk in the Garden August 15th 2017 .
Hurricane Ophelia hits Ireland in October 2017
Hurricane Ophelia dominated the Irish garden world when we got smacked with it on October 16th when the eye of the storm came through the south and on up through the west over a period of twelve hours leaving a trail of destruction behind . I think the worst was waiting for the first hurricane to actually arrive in Ireland to hit land and there was an eerie calm before the storm and an unusual light for 24 hours before which I read afterwards was from a combination of smoke from the recent forest fires in Portugal mixed with sand from the Sahara whipped up by the outside swirls of Ophelia . It was Ireland’s first experience of an actual hurricane and we had no clue what would happen or how much destruction it would cause , we had all seen on TV the results of hurricanes that regularly hit the US and Carribean with wide swathes of roofless house and knocked over palm trees and wondered was that our fate also but we got off relatively lucky in the end thankfully and Ireland North and South came through battered and bruised but still standing .
Gardening friends in the Clonmel area lost huge trees but here in our garden we were lucky to get away with the loss of about five conifers and various branches off the eucalyptus , the pergolas of course were stripped of climbing roses but none were lost and it was an easy job to tie them back .
I also lost a native oak which was a self seeded tree of ten years old and the force of the wind peeled it like a banana splitting the tree into three parts and of course the fact that it was in full leaf helped the destruction … gone forever but one has to be philosophical as a gardener and the loss of a big tree like this creates an interesting vacuum in the surrounding area with far more light coming in and changing the ambience of the area .
And now as they say for something completely different !
We were in India in November 2017 and of course visited the Taj Mahal and several gardens during our trip around Rajasthan including the famous Moghul water Garden of the Maidens in Udaipur , all Muslim design as in the Alhambra Garden in Granada where water was an important part of the design .
Later that evening at the Kohinoor Museum in Agra , Snezana got a chance to wear the jewellery of Mumtaz Mahal for whom the Taj was built .
India was an exotic experience , none more so than the elephants
Before I leave India and the elephants this is a story I told in my blog in January 2018
“Apologies for yet another elephant photo from our India trip in November however for some reason today in the garden I remembered an incident back in the early 1980’s when my daughter Claire was six years old and I took her on her own without her brothers to see Duffy’s Circus in Wexford Town and there we sat in the crowd mesmerised by an acrobat riding standing up on the back of a horse as it charged around the ring directed by the ring master with a whip , now Claire was of the age when little girls first fall in love with horse riding and she had taken her first lessons so was obviously entranced by this show of amazing stunt riding when the ring master stopped and asked the audience would anyone like to try this ?!! Claire shot up on her feet and before I could stop her shouted at the top of her voice I WILL … naturally everybody laughed at the sight of such a little girl but the ring master , bless him , took her seriously and called her down where they strapped a safety harness on her and up she was put standing up on this huge horse who promptly took off at a gallop around the ring … naturally Claire took off in the harness flying high above the crowd like tinkerbell … they tried again and she was game each time … all great fun and the crowd loved it and she came back up to our seat thrilled with herself and I was really proud that she had the guts to try it … the elephant came out next and I thought well at least there won’t be any bare back riding around on him but the ring master had another routine where he lay down on the floor of the circus tent , cracked his whip and the elephant lumbered across and stood over him with his huge foot raised over the ring master’s chest , another crack of the whip and he lowered his foot down on the ring master’s chest to a huge Aaaaah from the crowd then stopped and held his foot just inches above the ring master’s chest … huge cheers of course but then the ring master got to his feet and asked did anyone in the audience want to try it when before I could grab her six year old Claire shot up and roared MY DADDY WILL !!!!!!
It was a WTF moment but what could I do when your little girl thinks Daddy can do anything ? And yes I lay down on the circus floor and yes the elephant stood over me and gently brought his foot down on my petrified chest and in India when I looked into the eyes of the elephant at the Amber Fort in Jaipur my mind went back to a moment over thirty years ago at an Irish Circus !!”
Claire with Daddy in September 1977
A chain saw moment November 2017 !
November 2017 was the month I finally gave in and bought Snezana the birthday present she has wanted for the past fifteen years … her very first chain saw ! I am pathologically afraid of chain saws having in my early gardening years had a close call with one when it sliced right through my boot and ever since have refused to use one but she has been banging on about a chain saw for years so eventually last month we got one of the new battery powered ones which are a step down from the lethal weapons of the petrol driven varieties and I have to admit the amounts of small cutting you can get through is impressive and she has quickly become a real meister with it … although when she comes in from the garden I make her hold up both hands and count ten fingers !
Her first week of cutting back the willows was amazing to the extent that I wonder now what we ever did without one for the past ten years as we have been able to cut back the willow stems as thick as your wrist all across the wet areas of the garden and apart from providing a lot of wood for saving it rejuvenates the trees and next season will allow the young whippy growth to come through with brighter bark colour … I have been doing this hard pollarding as much as I could each winter with a hand saw but this chain saw is as they say the bees knees .
Throughout the winter of 2017 and into February 2018 the garden was hard pruned to within an inch of it’s life !
Bonfires of cuttings ready to be lit when the weather dried out
The usual question about the outdoor shower … is it heated … no it is NOT !!
The Beast from the East hits Ireland at the end of February 2018 , the first real snow in over thirty years which luckily enough lasted only two days and blanketed the garden in over a foot of snow .
After the Beast from the East in February 2018 and gardeners are an optomistic bunch and a new season begins in early April 2018 with the construction of a new pond in the Lower Garden !
This is an area at the bottom of the lawn near the tree house in the Lower Garden which is always wet and where I nearly lose the ride on mower even in August so I decided to embrace the wetness and with Peter Cullen driving the digger we dug out the area in early April , installed a butyl rubber liner and installed a pond with a bog garden around the edges . This pond I designed as a wild life area with sloping sides from the lawn where the planting will “walk” into the water with marginals planted from a bog garden edging right into the water with the taller plants such as hostas at the water’s edge where they will not cut off the view of the water as bog plants can get leggy and rampant and you end up with fighting your way through to the water which is then lost from view .
We started out with one shape but the design changed as we went along and ended up with a larger area of water as the liner was laid out … digging out with a digger even for and expert like Peter is not an exact science but there is none better with a feel for a natural lie of the land than Peter Cullen who has done all our hard landscaping since the beginning of the garden in 2006 .
Ending up with more water led to another problem … filling the pond as the nearest source of water was the stream which is two metres lower and twenty metres away … as in try sucking water through a hosepipe and we had no pump … at this point I am tempted to mention Stormy Daniels but that would be rude and not suitable for my more genteel garden readers … the solution was to lift water in buckets into the wheel barrow and then transfer to the newly lined pond … an operation that Snezana stuck doggedly through over eight hours and over a 1000 litres of water later we had our new pool ready for planting .
As I said earlier this was going to be a wild life pool with planting that needed to be low growing at the grass level and taller plants down the sloping sides to the water’s edge so the choice of plants had to be carefully planned and as it was early in the growing season I was able to divide a lot of our less rampant existing water plants and plant directly into the edges and down into the water . My edging plants at lawn level were slips of geranium biokovo which although not best pleased with damp conditions should clump up nicely , I added variegated iris’s just below the water level with hostas just above the water and I alternated divisions of marsh marigold , caltha , both the wild and the cultivated variety, weaving them into the edge and a few inches under the water and to this I added lots of houtania which if they take off will blur the edges of the water and give a natural look to the overall pond and added submerged plants such as a few water soldiers , statoides and a few buckets of oxygenating plants from other water areas in the garden plus a few water snails . As the slopes are deliberately designed to walk in i.e. no ledges I won’t be able to put fish in as the herons who live here will also walk in and eat them but next spring the plan is to carry a bucket of frog spawn from the front pond and this will ensure a wild life presence which hopefully will attract dragon flies and other natural visitors … already I see deer hoof prints at the edge .
At the moment the pond looks a bit manufactured but in a year’s time it will blend in better and the water colour will clear from the current muddy colour which is caused by the fact that we covered the butyl rubber liner with over six inches of earth for a more natural look and to allow marginal planting .
The new pond was settling in nicely by the end of May 2018 and becoming part of the landscape between the two lawn and it helped that there is no hard landscaping involved here with no paving as my plan is to have the lawn merging into the bog garden planting around the water . The planting will not include any tall plants so as not to interrupt the sight line so iris’s and bull rush types are out and Clonmel Garden Centre by coincidence have this year increased their water plant section tremendously and each month are displaying new plants although I must admit I am a total novice when it comes to knowledge of water marginals and apart from water lilies and marsh marigold and am out of my depth in deep water plants … literally as I have already fallen in twice when planting !
Plantago aquaticum , lysichton camtschatcensis , hydrocotyle, potentilla palustris, orontium aquaticum, persicaria amphibia mean anything to you … me either but their common names alisma , white skunk cabbage , pennywort , marsh cinquefoil , golden club , amphibious give a better clue that they all like damp conditions and these have all gone in this past week bought at a sale in Clonmel Garden Centre … they are not much to look at right now but give them a few months in the shallow water at the pond’s edge and they should romp away . I have often written here about the American skunk cabbage but this is the white flower version which I have not seen before and like the more usual yellow flowered version this will take several years to look anyway decent but then it is magnificent as a water’s edge architectural plant and the huge paddle like leaves stay standing most of the summer .
The new pond two months later 30th June 2018
New additions to the Garden and an old friend departs in June 2018
A few new additions to the garden infrastructure in the past few days and a sad goodbye to a wooden bench which was one of the first purchases back in April 2006 when I saw it at Manor Stone in Littleton when buying some large rocks and even though I maintained it with coats of paint every year or so , this year when we began to paint it some pieces fell apart and from now on I won’t be buying anymore wooden garden furniture as metal furniture needs minimum looking after .
But will keep us warm next winter !
This new stone head has been standing in Glenconnor Garden Centre for a few years where it became part of the furniture to such a degree that they were reluctant to let it go but Snezana fell in love with it a year or so ago and finally Chris gave in and it now guards the front garden … originally I thought it was a North American Indian totem pole replica but on closer living with it I think it is more likely to be a Mexican Aztec god … either way he looks great here !
New faces added in May 2018
My Gardening Blog of June 30th 2018 tells it’s own sad story
Finally a legend of the Old Spa Road neighbourhood passed away this week . Toby was owned by Margaret our next door neighbour but in reality he belonged to the entire road as he visited us all regularly . Both Snezana and I will miss him terribly as he took up residence at our front door every morning , accompanied each visitor through the garden and could give a guided tour on his own . Toby was a wonderful dog , gentle and loving , there will never be another one like him and as I said to Margaret the entire neighbourhood loved him but more importantly , Toby KNEW he was loved by the entire neighbourhood .
The Garden Open for the Lion’s Club August 12th 2108
The Garden Open day for the Lion’s Club kept up the tradition of the rain staying away and a great turn out of support for two very deserving local charities with over 180 people paying in on August 12th and raising over a thousand euros . As always a nice blend of visitors who asked interesting questions about the garden with children and dogs running wild but always well behaved ! Again as always the Clonmel Lion’s Club led on the day by Michael , Pascal , Rikki and Conrad did a great job of organising road signs , erecting tents , manning the gate , arranging teas and coffees and gorgeous cakes which allowed Snezana and I to concentrate on making everyone feel welcome to the garden .
Among the groups visiting the garden in the summer of 2018
As part of the occaisional Walk in the Garden Series I took these photos on May 19th 2018
There is no doubt that gardeners get great inspiration from visiting other gardens and we all borrow or steal ideas however in March 2018 I have to say that visiting Parc Guell in Barcelona , the garden created by the famous Spanish
architect Antonio Gaudi in the 1920’s , did nothing for me with it’s mass concrete construction and I found it a total disappointment .
In my subsequent garden blog for March 2018 I contrasted the sheer awfulness of the Gaudi sculpture in a garden setting with that of my favourite , Henry Moore , whose monuemental works fit so well into any landscape … of course all this is my personal view of Gaudi and I am sure many who read this will be appalled that their hero has been maligned !
On the same trip to Catalonia we visited a lovely tropical garden , Manimurta Garden , spread over a hillside with a site to die for tumbling down into the mediterannean which was also built in the 1920’s and the designer used the stunning natural scenery to frame various points of focus .
We were in Sicily for a week in early October 2018 and saw some wonderful Islamic Moorish water features at the famous 12th century Monrealle Cathedral outside Palermo which was similar to the Alhambra in Granada along with a fabulous display of balcony ceramic pots to rival the famous patios of Cordoba in Andaluisa.
A 4th century BC wine amphora from the Greek Theatre in Tauromina
A Crocodile Dundee moment with a statue at the 4th century BC Valley of the Temples , at Agrigento , Sicily , October 2018
Of course no visitor to Sicily should miss the Godfather film villages
Or Cafe Vitelli in Savoca where Michael Corleone first saw Appolonia
Mount Etna is also a must see when visiting Sicily
A visitor to the garden during the Open Day for the Lion’s Club , Eileen Acheson , asked if I would give a talk on the garden at the September 2018 Apple Fest
A Talk delivered at Clonmel Arts Club September 28th 2018
We built a garden … The Petrovska Garden Story
Eighteen years ago we bought our house at Old Spa Road here in Clonmel and this came with seven acres of wetland , land that was so bad that it was really a collection of water logged rushy fields that didn’t hold out any hope of ever being a garden and in fact it was known locally for generations of kids as THE SWAMP.
Against all the odds there is a garden there now and even some apple trees but no exceptional plants or exotic trees as the ground would not suit them but there is a wildness and a character and we believe we have tapped into the spirit of the land and walking through what we have created we feel in tune with this spirit and always come back from a walk down the garden feeling at peace and comfortable within ourselves .
This is airy fairy new age stuff that I never expected to hear myself speaking about what is essentially an inanimate and artificial thing , as gardens normally are , where plants and shrubs are grown shaped primped and pruned into rigid lines but we didn’t make this patch of land conform to any plan and went with the flow and where we found reasonable soil we planted , where we came to water we couldn’t drain we bridged it with wooden walkways , the land told us what to do and we followed that advice to end up with what is now a garden open to the public and which has been featured in several books and magazines and visited regularly by garden societies as far apart as Westport , Cork , Kilkenny , Waterford , Wexford and many from Dublin including the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland .
As I said there are no exceptional plants in our garden but what I feel is interesting for visitors is the narrative of how the garden evolved from the original swamp to what is now a wild garden following Robinsonian lines with rooms opening into rooms and a surprise around every corner . Don’t be fooled however by the word “wild ” as to maintain a garden on the edge of wildness takes a lot of behind the scenes work or nature will take it back and as Dolly Parton once said about her hair , to keep it looking this wild takes a lot of time and money !
We both had worked overseas for the EU for over twenty years throughout the Balkans when we decided to buy a house in Clonmel and as I was born and brought up here I knew the town and surrounding countryside well and we had narrowed down the search for a house to three locations and as Snezana was the stranger to the area I decided she should choose which of the three prospective houses we should buy and with that in mind we walked the locations and left this house and land to the last … we battled our way down the swamp ground through waist high grass, crossed the stream to the pine woods and suddenly she said you can’t see another house or building from here lets go for this one !
We moved in over a weekend in late November 2000 and the following Monday travelled back to Bosnia and for the next eight years continued to work abroad visiting twice a year for 10 days at a time and on each visit planting trees and the odd shrub so that when we finally came to live here full time there would be the outline of a garden framework in place .
With hindsight and as they say “ if I knew then what I know now “ there is no way we would have attempted what proved to be a massive project to reclaim almost eight acres of swamp from the wilderness and most people would have shouted RUN !! It was madness but looking back now eighteen years later it was worth it and in retirement it gave both of us a second career .
That naievity on both our parts also helped mask the enormity of the task in that there never was an overall plan just a series of projects tackling various areas with one leading incrementally to the next so we never woke up in the morning thinking there was a mountain out there to be climbed …rather every few months there was another exciting project beckoning to get started on .
The first project when I came home full time ten years ago was to make access easier in all weather to the entire garden and we designed and laid out hard core gravelled paths around the perimeter of the eight acres and it seemed there was a digger parked permanently at the house in those early years … we used the opportunity to bulk up low lying areas with the excavated soil , created small dams along the natural stream which then allowed us to dredge out a small pond which in turn gave the idea to create a small island in the middle of the new water area by digging out a channel around a planted up area into which the water found its own level , which in turn led to a small japanese style bridge and of course a bridge needs to lead somewhere so that led to a wooden walkway through the wilderness area which allowed up close and personal contact with the most wonderful series of Scottish thussock grass hummocks growing wild in the deepest swamp area hidden amongst the wild iris’s and reeds and inaccessible normally unless in wellie boots on 5 foot stilts !
From the first excavation by the digger in those early days we thought it was lovely when in fact looking back now at photos of the mud , the water, it looked like the trenches in the First World War and was positively awful and visitors must have been looking at our enthusiasm and wondering when the men in white coats would be arriving to take us away !!
You need a sense of wonderment and total naievity to tackle such a project and you can see how it all happened now and that’s how we continued , one idea would lead into another – I had retired and was working full time in the garden while Snezana would come back on leave every six weeks from Kiev , Kosovo or the frontline in Eastern Ukarine and look at what was being done with fresh eyes which would lead to further tweaking of the project .
An ecological report commissioned in the early days stated that any native tree planted en masse “ will provide a hunting ground for local sparrow hawks and kestrels which are already residing in the area which also holds a healthy population of pheasants “ . The report recommended “ oak , larch as good strong trees for planting along with willow ” .
Gradually over the next two years having seen what could be accomplished with wooden walkways over water we laid paths through all the forgotten wetland corners of the garden so now all areas are accessible . We planted along these paths and every year nature further colonized with mayflower and the damp loving wild astilbe known as meadow sweet , purple loosestrife , water mint and wild iris which thrives in this garden . Within two to three years this natural growth was providing winter shelter and cover for an ever increasing population of resident water hens and the hundred’s of ducks which return every year with several herons that have taken up permanent residence at the bottom of the area while a pair of snowy egrets arrive from North Africa every December and stays until February … the old adage “ build it and they will come “ so true with the wild life and native plants that self seeded together with the native oak and silver birch and in a short ten years the lower areas of the garden have been transformed completely
In 2012 we were invited to become part of the Tipperary Garden Trail , a scheme that opens selected gardens for charity and we have opened the garden one weekend each year ever since for the Clonmel Lion’s Club charity while the garden is also open for general visitors from May to October each year.
Nature has a way of altering the garden especially this past year where we had Hurricane Ophelia last October followed in February this year by the Beast from the East which dumped a ton of snow over two days and of course the once in forty years drought this summer , we lost a lot of trees and shrubs , sad to see them go but every loss gives a new opportunity to plant something else and life continues in the garden .
To maintain a life long interest in gardening you need a philosophy , a theme if you like … ours is unashamedly naturalistic wild gardening and we let our plants fight it out for space as in nature and only prune back if there is serious overflowing onto the paths that make it difficult to push through .
And along the way you need to get used to being wet, muddy , tired and cold , fingers numb ……it is not all sunshine out there !
Our gardening style
We try to always use trees and shrubs that contribute a combination of good leaf colour and bark so you get a plant of year round interest not the instant hit of a three week flowering period and then you are stuck with this drab looking plant for the rest of the summer . For me a plant has to perform for nine months and for that flowering takes second place .. I have a gardening friend who rings and says come over quickly so and so is in bloom and by the time you get there the thing has either been knocked over by the wind or the rain and is disappointing .
Now having said that I don’t bother with flowering plants , I do admire them in other people’s garden and respect the hard work that goes in to their maintenance . We don’t have the type of nice crumbly soil to grow long borders of perennials , we have accepted this and got on with what we have on the principle of right plant right place and our natural preference has from the beginning been foliage plants planted in a naturalistic style combined with trees that have good bark in winter coupled with good foliage in summer.
Our gardening style here is also governed by the fact that the garden is visited regularly by deer from the mountain who eat away at trees particularly young trees and you never know what they will eat next as we have had trees and shrubs they have left alone for years and you think you have got away with it and then come out some morning and the tree is eaten down to a stump .
Mistakes in the garden yes we have had a few , mainly self inflicted such as introducing a harmless looking aquatic plant to the water areas , parrot feather which looks gorgeous but which in a natural environment romps away enthusiastically and took seven years to get under control and bull rushes which out of youthful nostalgia for cowboy camps lit by dipping them into petrol and lighting I innocently planted five in the main pond and I now rip them out by the hundreds each summer !
A question I am always asked is
How the garden got it’s name
Snezana and I could never agree on a name for the garden over the years as it took shape . At various times I suggested Willow Farm ..Olive Farm … Oakwood House … all equally pretentious … she never suggested a name of her own just kept vetoing my suggestions so we decided not to have a name . However I was contacted by Gerry Daly’s gardening website who asked to list the garden in their guide . Filling out the details online I entered the names of the owners as Michael O’Riordan and Snezana Petrovska – O’Riordan which is her Yugoslav family name but left the garden name section blank and heard no more until back comes the listing as .. you’ve guessed it .. Petrovska Garden !
I could have edited the entry but decided that the computer knew something I didn’t know and had to acknowledge that she always tolerated listening to me prattling on about gardening all these years , japonica this japonica that without complaint …. so Petrovska Garden it is !
Sometimes though when on my own in the quietest part of the lower wood I have been known to sob quietly …. like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront … I coudda been a contender … it shoudda been me !!
Finally the work continues to this day , do come and visit us !
Autumn colours in the Garden , October 2018
Last group visitors to the garden in October 2018
Clean up jobs for Autumn , putting the gunerra to bed , October 28th 2018
Unusual planting cooperation between two gardeners who normally don’t work together as SHE reckons ” I get all the shit jobs ” however as the photos show who gets to dig the fifteen planting holes for the dwarf daffodils , tete a tete … and who has the ladylike delicate task of dropping in the bulbs ?!
And how it looked four months later in February 2019
In February 2019 we decided to improve the view of the garden from inside the kitchen and after a week of hectic restructuring by Pascal Mansfield we got the sought after room outside look !
During the construction there was much discussion on what size lintel would be needed to support the new window
However our trip to Italy in March 2019 showed a Crocodile Dundee moment when we saw a stone lintel carved by the Romans in 100 BC to support the amphiteatre in Verona !
My garden blog for March 2019 was at the height of Brexit madness in the UK parliament
My Gardening Week March 31st 2019 … The Noes have it , the Noes have it !
Like me you have probably have had it up to here with Brexit for the past three years as the UK Parliament that up to now historically has been looked up to as the Mother of all Parliaments but which now has shown itself to be stuffed with pompous old farts loving the sound of their own voices unable to make a decision all the while been led by the nose by ten Northern Ireland DUP MP’S who are against anything that might tie them to the South even though the majority of people in NI both protestant and catholic voted to remain in the EU .
I am always suspicious about a political party that styles itself “ democratic ” me thinks they doth protest too much perhaps and so it is with the Democratic Unionist Party which loves the Union with Great Britain but loves it on their terms which means selectively as in the case of womens rights such as abortion or gay marriage which the DUP don’t allow extend across the Irish Sea … God Forbid they would allow that in the six counties . The Brits of course back in 2016 thought that the EU and ourselves would just roll over which is why the so called “irish back stop ” annoys them so much as it is an agreement they can’t get out of … the cheek of the EU and the Dublin Government to insist on a mechanism that when they signed an agreement that they would have to actually keep their word … can you believe it old boy , absolutely preposterous of Johnny Foreigner , why in the old days of the Empire we would just have sent the gun boat up the river to Paris or Dublin !! A hard Brexit would be disastrous for the Irish economies both north and south of the border which since the Peace Deal 20 years ago have become dependent on each other and the back stop is just to guarantee that all parts of Ireland would remain in the EU Customs area whatever is eventually agreed between London and Brussels but which the DUP see as a border down the Irish Sea and eventually a United Ireland … the DUP would prefer their children to be totally gay rather then be Irish , the lesser of two evils in their mindset .
During our trip to Italy in March 2019 we visited a city where like in our garden there is a lot of water and where a coffee in St. Mark’s Square cost 12 euros !
In May we visited the garden in Croatia and saw the difference in mediterranean plants grown in their natural environment and not the miserable looking specimens that sulk in our wet conditions here in Ireland .
May saw the first of the Gardening Club visits when the Irish Garden Plants Society arrived with 76 members on May 20th 2019 .
in May , Rachel de Thame , one of my favourite garden writers wrote movingly in the Sunday Times about her treatment for cancer and reminded her readers , if we had forgotten , how valuable life is .
“ I looked out over the backs of buildings during my chemotherapy sessions but was able to focus on a large tree rising above the rooftops following it’s progress from bare branches to stems laden with foliage as my treatment came to an end. That view connected me with a world beyond illness, the common place beauty of a single tree reminding me that life in all it’s forms is wondrous and worth fighting for .”
Sometimes things have to change in a garden and in March I moved a garden seat from the back of the house where it had stood for ten years , repainted it and moved it to a new home down in the Swamp Garden .
As part of a regular ” Walks in the Garden ” photo feature that I put up on Face Book , this is one from June 10th 2019
In February 2019 we had to change part of the front garden to get at the power supply for the garden lights , a messy job which saw holes dug at intervals in what was an unsuccessful search and led to a complete rewiring of the lights together with the removal of the ten or so cornus elegantissimus . I loved those dogwoods for their variegated leaf in the summer and the red bark in winter but even I would admit I had left them grow too big with the result that they reached to almost three metres high at the height of the summer and covered up that part of the Front Garden but still I loved those leaves ! However much as I loved the dogwoods , Snezana disliked them as she felt they cluttered up the area … higgedly piggedly in her words … and much as I try to accommodate her design wishes in the garden I over the years had dug my heels in … the dogwoods were staying !
However … ahem … I liked the bare look of the area without the dogwoods and yes it did as she has been preaching ( nagging ?) for years open up the entire area and allowed the two mature trees there , a silver birch jacquemontii and a liquidamber , to stand out whereas before their lower growth had been smothered by the dogwoods … shouldda gone to Specsavers earlier !!
Gardens do and should evolve over time and a make over every few years can be a positive as shrubberies , plantings ( and gardeners !) can get stale and I do have to accept that I am a tad conservative in engaging in large scale change in the garden unless such as here where I had no choice ( if I wanted the garden lights to work ) so it made the decision easier … but the sound of crowing from the other gardener here was fierce annoying !
I have planted the new area up with a variety of ground cover plants , geranium biokovo and nudosum and some Bergenia and in the winter I will carpet the area with dwarf daffodils and crocus for early Spring colour next year .
In July 2019 I wrote that ever popular at the moment in the gardening world are wild flower meadows and especially since a back to nature theme was the focus of the Chelsea Flower Show this year with cow parsly and the like featuring in all the winning show gardens . I have never taken to this myself as I always feel the wild flower areas in private gardens look untidy and a bit messy and this is largely down to gardeners who tend to leave a patch uncut and then call it their wild flower area when in fact no planning or care has gone into it in a kind of lazy mans gardening . I use the words private gardens for this pet hate of mine but in public gardens run by local councils a designated wild flower area can look spectacular especially if a path or wide edge is cut carefully around the designated wild area then it can look designed and with this in mind I have set aside a small area in the lower field garden which I will try to maintain as our own wild flower area .
If you research wild flower gardening on Google you will find that rigorous preparation is needed to prepare the area beforehand and when I say rigorous I mean full blown war where the area is blasted with full on glyphosphate weed killer for at least a year so that not even a blade of grass is left alive … yes these paragons of virtue , the ruthless rainbow warriors mean business and have no scruples with the use of weed killers in making sure THEIR wild flower areas get off to the best possible start so that there is no competition such as couch grass or docks present when they sow the seed and assorted plugs of selected flowers , then you after the first season you cut it all down and the second and third year you sow special seed varieties that will kill of any stray seedlings not in the plan … so real wild flower gardening is a four year managed project and of course that is assuming you are beginning with dry soil and not too rich nourishment .
Our selected area is not the best as it is wettish with good grass growth so we can expect a lot of docks and yellow buttercup but hopefully a lot of ragged robin which has a beautiful pink flower and seems to grow there naturally and all I am doing this year is allowing the grass to grow uncut there but surrounded by mown areas so it looks a bit managed and next year I will throw in some wild seed suitable for heavy ground and perhaps some perennials and see how it goes and if it just looks like a dogs dinner well we can strim it down , nothing ventured nothing gained !
A good friend and a great Clonmel gardener passed away early in July 2019 , Mary O’Donovan and I will miss visiting her at Fairy Hill her woodland garden set over three acres along the Suir . Mary was a no nonsense type of person when I first met her years after she had retired as Matron of Kilcreene Hospital in Kilkenny where she took no prisoners according to her former colleagues , a style she continued with to the end of a long life . I first met her eight years ago when we opened the garden here at Old Spa Road for the first time and as a near neighbour she rang to check out the garden and more importantly the gardeners … we passed inspection , remained good friends and regular visitors to each other’s garden and we will miss her .
In August 2019 I got to meet Dan Pearson , and inspirational garden writer , at the Carlow Garden Festival and who has been one of my favourite writers over the past twenty years .
I have been gardening for over forty years starting at a time when there were little or no gardening programmes on TV and certainly no internet , a time when you learned about gardening mainly from gardening books and in the 1970’s and 80’s my two gardening writers to collect and read were Christopher Llyod and Robin Lane Fox . I never managed to visit and meet Christopher Llyod at his famous garden in Great Dixter in East Sussex but his books were a constant inspiration particularly the Well Tempered Garden and it is a constant regret that when on a cycling tour around Southern England , Kent and Sussex in 1981 I visited Sissinghurst but didn’t make it the extra 40 miles or so on to Great Dixter deciding instead to visit the garden of Winston Churchill at Chartwell and that of Rudyard Kipling at Batemans , I was heading to London and my thinking was that I would make it back to Sussex within a few years but EU duties in the Balkans took me away for the best part of the nex twenty years and Great Dixter is still on my to do list .
I met Robin Lane Fox in 2015 at the Carlow Garden Festival and again I have all his books , they say never meet your heroes but Lane Fox didn’t disappoint and last week I got to meet my last gardening writer legend when we attended a lecture by Dan Pearson at Altamount Gardens . I have been a fan of Dan Pearson’s style of writing from his first book back in 1997 and his style is laid back , non confrontational unlike Christopher Llyod , he comes across in his writing and TV programmes such as a Year at Home Farm as very gentle and was ahead of his time in that he has been advocating a wild gardening approach away from the structured lines of typical perennial lovers for the past twenty years long before it became fashionable .
Dan Pearson won a gold medal and Best Show Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2015 and is now the most sought after garden designer in the world and is revered in Japan where he is working on a millennium project of over 1000 acres which will take the next twenty years to complete .
I had brought over some of his books for him to sign and got to sit down with him one on one before his talk which centred on his gardening philosophy which is a natural wild approach and which has veered away from the traditional manicured perennial beds so loved by UK and Irish gardeners and of course he is now so in demand that he can pick projects that only suit his personal tastes in garden structure and design .
In my September 2019 blog I wrote about the japanese “bathing in woods ” where a recent Telegraph article detailed the effect woodland has on the amygdala … the wha I hear you say … yes me neither but it is the part of the brain which regulates the response to fear , anxiety and stress and the article was about a recently published German research , in the journal Scientific Reports , on 341 older mostly retired residents of Berlin . It is accepted wisdom that exposure to green space and the countryside has beneficial health effects however this research has shown that exposure specifically to woodland brings increased beneficial and calming effects to the brain and we are not talking here about a few trees in the garden … no the research found that independent of income or personal circumstances the effect was massive when actual woodland was involved … go often for a walk in the woods !
The Japanese as always are ahead of us in matters of nature and have a word for exposure to woodland , they call it shinrin yoku , “ wood bathing ” or taking in the atmosphere of the forest so that basically walking in the woods is relaxing and calming for us .
In September 2019 I wrote about using stone in gardening
Stone has always fascinated me especially dry stone walls and in another life I would have been a stone mason although I wouldn’t fancy working in the open in all the weather these guys do especially in the cold on the Irish and Scottish mountains and I have always admired their skill and dedication but Croatia has in my view the best tradition of building in stone and I was privileged last year to watch up close a group of masons from Immotski building a series of stone terraces in the garden in Gornija Podgora … these guys took their time both in selecting the individual stone and finally placing it and in several tricky cases took thirty minutes over one stone before being satisfied and I also saw them rejecting three lorry loads of stone as being unsuitable for this particular project , such dedication to their craft is rarely seen and certainly not here in Ireland .
The Croatian Island of Brac is famous for it’s stone and legend has it that masons from Brac as well as marble from the island took part in the building of the White House in 1792 where that shy guy , Trump , currently resides and they also built parliament buildings in Budapest and Vienna when Croatia was part of the Austro – Hungarian Empire . Brac has quarries dating back to Roman times and it’s stone was used to build The Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace in Split in 389 AD and today one of only two Stone Mason Academies in Europe based is in Pucisca on Brac with the other one in France , the school was founded in 1909 and the tradition is very much alive today with currently 95 students from all over Croatia including fifteen from Brac itself . In September we met Ante Kusmanic , a graduate of the Pucisca Academy , at his work shop in Brac where Snezana fell in love with one of Ante’s works , a beautiful stone table with the base alone weighing over a ton weight … the pictures tell the story of Ante’s work and the finished table is a work of art !
A plant dies in a pot in September 2019 and a new pot arrives
The garden changes constantly as trees and shrubs mature and then the need for a pot in that location is no longer there and you move it to somewhere else but the one constant is that you need to suit the plant to that location i.e. sun or shade and the other constant is that shrubs and small trees eventually die in pots after a few years generally it has to be said through neglect by lack of water or not boosting the soil with some nutrients and this was the case here with a small olive tree that stood in the front patio for the last ten years and which has been in decline for the past two years … I have been in denial about it’s unhappiness as I loved having an olive tree albeit a small one in an Irish garden but earlier this month I bit the bullet and removed the olive tree , gave it a hard pruning and placed in our recuperation ward over by the potting area in the hope it may recover .
I replaced it with a small Japanese maple , acer palmatum , a purple leaf variety called Bloodgood … odd name but called after the Long Island New York nursery that bred it and probably refers to it’s deep colour . One of the reasons the olive tree stuttered and failed was due to the pot eventually being too small so I used the opportunity to move the pot to a new location and planted the new maple into a larger pot which was in another area where it was not shown off at it’s best .
And a heart felt plea in October 2019 …. don’t bring me back to live under a tarpaulin Jaipur
Writing about gardening makes me realise just how we in the west are so lucky to actually have a garden and the figure of 4 euros for a pack of snowdrops would go a long way to feeding a family in India for a day where the majority of people have absolutely nothing , no house and sometimes a sheet of tarpaulin against a wall is all that shelters entire families and all the prattling from Greta at the UN about climate change and travelling to New York for a week on a f..king yacht to prove a point with all the other fat cat activists and politicians pontificating to the rest of us … these people would be better off to spend a week in a shelter in Calcutta or Jaipur to see how millions of poor people live in India .
I took this photo in Jaipur during a trip to India in November 2017 and this family of five kids live under a tarpaulin sheet on the side of a busy main road and their Mother’s job is to feed “underprivileged ” COWS at a cow sanctuary and the amazing thing was that as we piled out of our luxury air conditioned coach to look at the cow sanctuary the lady showed no rancour or envy towards us , just the polite smiling face of her acceptance of how things were for her and her six kids .
This photo I took in Agra when turning a corner I came upon this group of ladies all crouched down in the street waiting to be dealt with by some office official or other … I asked could I take a photo and they all instantly beamed agreement and these two images are the memories I have retained in my mind from all the Taj Mahal and grand castles I saw in India . These groups were all Hindu who believe in reincarnation and put up with what they get in this life as a progression towards a better existence in the next … I don’t have a belief in reincarnation but if it happens please God don’t have me living in Jaipur under a tarpaulin sheet .
In November 2019 I wrote about the olive harvest in Gornja Podgora in Croatia .
In November 2019 I posted a new page to the website listing the collection of vintage agricultural items , old tin baths , the odd cannonball etc. we have collected over the years and placed around the garden .
While also in November I updated the November 2015 page listing all the pots throughout the garden.
In December we visited South Africa and got to see among other bucket list destinations the famous Cape Town Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens .
I have visited a lot of gardens and some of the world’s best such as Blenheim Palace , Versailles , Sissinghurst , Majorelle , but none beats Kirstenbosch , the Cape Town Botanical Garden both for the variety of plants , over 7000 , and it’s unique setting at the foot of Table Mountain . It is also unusual for it’s lack of formality and total lack of any prepared beds and at over 1300 acres you could spend a week there without seeing it all and there is even a path climbing directly to the top of Table Mountain which takes three hours to climb if you have the will … and the legs ! A half day visit was not close enough to relax and breathe in the atmosphere but we did get a flavour when we walked the tree top route , a wooden walkway suspended above the tree line and everywhere you look is dominated by Table Mountain , what an unforgettable setting and what a place for a garden . Favourite plants in Kirstenbosh … has to be the protea , the national symbol of SA , closely followed by the agapanthus which are grown in beds of up to 1000 here and I also loved the silver tree , Leucadendron argenteum , which is only found in the Table Mountain area and nowhere else in the world , a real stop em dead in the track moment when you see it .
The trip to South Africa was memorable and I would recommend it to anyone … would I go back … no … personal security is a huge issue and even in the white areas it is not safe at night and in fact no one ventures out for a walk anywhere after dark and at the seaside tourist areas you make sure you are not on a beach after sunset or before sunrise as the sad fact is that the night belongs to the black people who come out from the townships at night and along with that comes the violence and robbery but the main reason I would not go back is that most visitors and travel companies visit just the Cape area and the Cape for me is just too white , too privileged and although jaw droppingly beautiful with the wine and garden routes , I have no wish to see it again .
Some things we don’t have to worry about in our Irish Gardens !
Signs at our hotel garden in Kruger National Park , December 2019
While in SA I , almost a vegetarian in normal life , ate ostrich , worms , fried in a light sauce but still looking like worms (!) , a huge source of protean I ‘m told and the local crocodile … well you have to don’t you ? … never again for ostrich meat which was horribly sweet , a first and a last also for the worms while surprisingly the crocodile was very juicy and nice but I still couldn’t get past the idea it was crocodile !!
From what I could see there are two very different South Africas , the area of Johannasburg north to Natal , rolling plains given over to cattle and very very poor black people living much as their ancestors did over a hundred years ago and then there is the Cape area which includes the wine lands and the garden route , white Afrikaner owned and dominated and very rich . I had always thought that the term “ garden route ” meant it was lined with beautiful gardens but not so although there are I am sure beautiful gardens as it is as beautiful and fertile a land as I have ever seen … the term dates back to the first white settlers , the Dutch who thought it was so beautiful that it must be the setting for the Garden of Eden .
2020 A new year and a new decade in the garden , innocent words but the world had no clue what was spiralling out of control in China , in Wuhan to be precise and which would change our lives and our expectations forever .
My first writings of the new year 2020 featured winter colour and pruning and the fear of pruning every novice gardener feels .
Walking around a garden in winter especially in January you are delighted with any plant that gives a bit of a show either through the bark colour or like this morning when I saw the first new leaves on an acanthus , a perennial originally from the Mediterranean region but which grows well in the UK and Ireland … one of the earliest plants to be propagated and the name comes from ancient greek , acanthus , and from 500 BC onwards the acanthus leaves were carved as a decoration at the top of Roman and Greek columns . Easy to grow and propagate and in some areas it can be invasive , never for me unfortunately as I love the plant and it throws up great flower spikes if you are lucky which are great bee pollinators , two varieties spinosa and mollis which just have different leaves and a great plant for every garden shrubbery or bed , just give it some space , sun or dappled shade and it is not a difficult plant , dampish conditions suit acanthus but it doesen’t suffer too much in dry areas either and no garden should be without an acanthus .
Another shrub that comes into it’s own in winter is the variegated eleagnus which is golden edged but never garish and I grow three types here , ebbengii limelight and the varieties gilt edged and maculate . The variety limelight is quick growing but you need to watch it as it reverts to green and unless you are ruthless about cutting out those green shoots you can lose the variegation completely and the green takes over , it can be pruned quite easily when the shrub is young but it is a quick grower and when it is six or seven years old it is usually three metres high and wide and you can easily miss the green growth . Gild edged is slow growing as is maculata and they don’t try and revert and the leaves stay nicely coloured as the shrub matured , a great addition to any garden and do well in sun or shade but they take about ten years to grow about a metre and a half … worth the wait though .
In March the full impact of how serious Covid 19 would be hit the world and new words like cocooning and lockdown became the vocabulary of the day .
But a gardening blog has to be written and for those of us lucky enough to have gardens , work in the garden continues and in the months that followed the garden became a life line for us all .
My Gardening Week 31st March 2020 … and we thought it was a beer
The country in lockdown , the older generation , myself included are cocooning , panic buying in the shops , toilet paper at a premium … the majority of people out of work and in lock down , keeping each other at two metres distant when venturing outside , normal life today is like looking at an apocalyptic movie and who could have predicted the effect the corona virus would have and will the world , our world ever be the same again and of course it will , patience is the thing and those of us with gardens will have them pampered like poodles with so much time to spend on them !
Last week I chanced on a heap of frog spawn in the Lower Field which was fresh and obviously dropped by a pregnant frog who couldn’t manage to get to water in time , I was able to scoop it up and carried it to our back garden pond where it should produce healthy tad poles who will then turn into tiny frogs and fan out into the garden … frogs live for up to 12 years, and every spring they emerge from hibernation to mate and lay eggs in the same pond. frogs generally return to their water of birth . In the old days gardeners myself included regularly scooped out frog spawn from it’s original water and transferred it around in buckets but it has been illegal for some years to collect frog spawn and this is a rule I always keep as nature has been interfered with too much and frog spawn has been declining for many years . It has only happened to me once before in over 40 years of gardening that I found spawn in open ground away from water and you have to feel sorry for the female frog caught out like this but at least we were able to give her babies a good home .
As March is the frog spawning season the Irish Wildlife Trust issued the following advice this month “ Please don’t touch it, it’s terribly vulnerable stuff. They produce masses and masses of eggs but that’s because many of them will die. This is something that depends on our help and depends on not interferring in any way and to leave them alone as much as possible.”
As gardeners we all like to preach right plant right place but do we always practice it or do we continue to cram something into an area we love on the principle it will be grand … guilty m’lord and this week it I had to deal with the problem twice where the wrong shrub / small tree was planted in the wrong place , the first being a supposedly low growing hebe which I planted in the wooden planters in the front patio garden six years ago and which was planned to fill a space about two foot square and the second was a standard Japanese maple . The hebe grew and grew and was heading to three metres which would normally be great if in a border or even as a stand alone shrub but in the wooden planter it looked totally out of proportion and Snezana has been on at me to prune it back for over two years which I resisted as I didn’t and still don’t know how the hebe will react to a severe cutting into bare wood but yesterday even I had to throw in the towel and admit the hebe looked out of proportion and all wrong towering over the small planter so I whacked into it with the saw and cut it down to two feet high . I have seen huge hebes grow back again from the base after being cut down with a hard frost and at least this is the best month to heavy prune so will wait and see … the hebe owes us nothing having self seeded prolifically into the gravel areas every year and we have loads of replacements potted up if the mother plant pops its clogs … mind you when I see the photo below from 2016 and how good it looks I am having second and third thoughts and am thinking I should have taken a bit off every year instead of this drastic car crash of a pruning .
And after a severe pruning in March 2020 2020
I wrote in March that Snezana and I realised a long time ago that we cannot work together in the garden but we have reached a stage where both styles and type of work we do can be accomodated .
Basically there is room in the garden for both of us and for our different approaches and while I get on with the everyday sometimes boring work of the kind of maintenance a garden of almost eight acres needs she can seek out the areas I don’t do and creates projects from forgotten or neglected areas of the garden . Her latest project is to tackle an area underneath a large oak tree which over the years I have strimmed on a once a year basis and left it at that with the result that the ground area is overgrown with ivy and a lot of brambles until its annual trim . When Snezana has decided on a project she works hard at it and this one is no exception as she has slowly cleared most of the area to reveal a lovely space but of course the ivy does not give up easily and it will take a while to thoroughly clean all the roots before we can decided on what to do with the new space … it is at this stage that we work as a team as I am called in to suggest planting possibilities and this site will be a challenge as apart from being north facing it is in deep shade from April to December with the oak leaf so not a lot of choice but lamium or dead nettle , lamium Chablis which has a pretty flower , vincas , geranium , hellebores or even the dwarf viburnum tinus variety Evelyn Price will grow in these conditions however I will only suggest possible plants and it will be Snezana’s choice of plants .
What I didn’t realise back in March that this cleaning under the oak tree was going to lead to a total revamp of our front garden where Snezana tackled an area long swamped in ground ivy and this in turn led to the cleaning and resoration of a fifty five metre dry stone wall .
This cooperation which we call our Covid Wall Project took advantage of the lockdown that lasted for twelve weeks through March to end of June where we cleaned and recovered an area that I had just ignored .
Here is what I wrote in April 2020 of the Covid Wall Project over the 12 weeks of lockdown .
Snezana has now reclaimed two patches of the garden with the latest being in the front garden under a large mountain ash , sorbus moonbeam variety , which over the past twelve years has been taken over by rampant ground ivy which through laziness I convinced myself looked nice and organic but now that she has hand cleaned off over sixty barrow loads of the ivy I love the reclaimed soil and we are planning a flower bed that will take into account the shade from the mountain ash and the dry soil … a mixture of our own home grown geranium , hellebores and bergenia will go in there in about four weeks and then in the Autumn I will underplant with spring flowering bulbs .
This is what she does best , won’t take direction of course and always wants to work on an area she can claim and call her own work … it is a policy that works for us and I am happy to then prepare the planting up .
When I wrote that last paragraph I was just referring to the ground she had reclaimed but then her horizons extended to the dry stone wall behind which most likely dates back to the 1930’s when our garden was divided by the Irish Land Commission after Irish independence in 1921 . I undertook to clean off seventy years of ivy from the low wall which runs along fifty five metres of the front garden , reset and build up the stone and this took a weeks work and another 150 barrow loads of ivy but it looks great , we now call it our Covid Wall , and now the issue is what to do with the new area with the brief being not to obstruct the lovely dry stone wall with shrubs or trees .
We used the Covid lockdown to tackle part of the front garden I had neglected from almost the beginning in 2006 when we got the pond installed and the basic design laid out . I knew that the boundary ditch contained a dry stone wall but even then it was covered in ground ivy as was most of the ground and I also knew this was a massive job to clear and just ignored it as there was so much to do in the rest of the garden however in March this year Snezana decided this was work she could tackle and even though I advised against it ever being up to much , she got stuck in and removed over 200 barrow fulls of the ivy before I was shamed into helping … over all of April we tackled the dry stone wall and I removed another 100 barrows of ivy during which a lot of the fifty five metre long wall collapsed but eventually I retrieved the stones and reset the wall as my contribution to her project while she dug over the new planting beds … not great soil and very dry but still quite a nice area to design suitable planting which had to be low growing as having gone to such trouble to reveal the lovely stone wall it would be a pity to hide it with metre high shrubs or perenials while also selecting plants that do well in shade as the new area only gets sun in the afternoon . We opted for a mixture of ferns , hostas , geraniums and some clump forming evergreen perennials together with a dwarf purple leafed japanese maple … all are doing well and like all newly established planting in summer months I have kept the area well watered during dry periods , the dryish soil may be a problem for the hostas to thrive but I am banking on the shaded position to get them through .
We are delighted with the result and it has brought an area neglected for so long back to the garden … thanks to Snezana’s initiative in the beginning in tackling the area as a project with which I very reluctantly became involved , a late convert one could say !
How the new area looks in June 2020
I am a great admirer of hostas and usually in May I write about them .
By May you need to have protected your hostas from the slugs or else you will only have tattered leaves to admire so if you are an eco warrior who refuses to use pesticides you will not have hosta leaves to admire … but at least you will have your eco credentials intact and that’s important .. right … not for me it isen’t as I will have blitzed the little buggers to hell and back with slugtox !
With 70 species and over 3000 varieties you have a lot of choice in hostas but really a lot of the varieties , most of which are bred in the US , have only slight differences if any and in the past few years probably in an attempt to have funky sexy titles the names have become ridiculous . I mainly grow just three hostas , Elegans , Francis Williams and Halcyon , all big leaved big statement hostas but in the past three years I have added June and Gold Standard to my three reliables , both bred in the US with award winning pedigrees from 1980 and while Francis Williams remains my long term favourite of over thirty years and my go to hosta for any new perennial bed , I have come to really appreciate Hosta June in the past two years which I grow in pots and which has a really subtle colour and it does particularly well in partial shade . This month I added two new varieties , new to me that is , Patriot , a green and white big leave and Purple Heart which has solid dark green leaves carried on a purple stem , unusual and I am looking forward to see it grow .
Size matters or so they tell me and in hostas the largest with leaves up to one metre is Empress Wu , green ribbed leaves , I have three of them which I grow in pots without great success but I am not a fan of Empress Wu and just grow it for it’s novelty value as the largest hosta and would not recommend it .
I find hostas grow best when in partial shade , they like damp conditions but will do OK in dryish conditions provided you are willing to throw the odd bucket of water their way in drought conditions . Christopher Llyod was a huge fan of hostas and it was his book in 1976 , the Well tempered Gardener , that first got me interested in hostas and once interested I became addicted and he describes accidently throwing a barrow full of pig manure over some hostas and they grew “ like thugs ” and anything Llyod described as a thug I grow !
Hostas can be fickle enough as too much wetness in the soil and they will sulk and today I moved three hosta elegans from what I considered a prime site when I planted them two years ago but the soil bordered on water logged and they were more prone to slug attacks and never grew to anything like their potential so following my usual mantra of moving a plant or shrub after two years if not doing well and today was their day to try pastures new and the three elegans went into the new bed in the front garden that Snezana has just cleaned .
Hostas are great in pots but they need large pots as they develop a huge root system which will quickly outgrow a small to medium pot … most of the small leafed hostas are fine in pots but I would advise particularly against planting the variety elegans in a pot no matter how big the pot as it’s roots will quickly crack a pot after three years growth as I have found out to my cost and this hosta elegans has broken a previous pot and has already put cracks into this pot … so why do you continue putting elegans in a pot I can hear you say but this is the only elegans I have in a pot and I love it for it’s big dramatic statement … and I get pleasure out of it every time I pass it so I reckon a broken pot every few years is worth it !
Hostas won’t tolerate other plants alongside them in pots or I should say will quickly smother other plants apart from a few bedding annuals only there for a few months in summer and my system here is to only use large statement pots for hostas and leave them idle for the winter months where the pots are big enough to be a design structure in themselves either through their colour or shape .
My Gardening Week 30th June 2020 … Freedom from Lockdown has begun !
After close to 12 weeks in lockdown since early March we can all begin to get back to normal life such as it can be before a vaccine is found for Covid and for us gardeners slowly but surely we can visit other gardens which we have all missed .
Most of us with gardens open to the public think that there will be no organised group visits this year as people will be slow to travel on coaches except for essential travel and as most of the garden visitors in organised groups are usually of cocooning age I feel this is only sensible . I must say gardening without the usual timetables of visiting groups has been a lot more relaxed as we have not had to rush to get maintenance done to a schedule or timetable but still you would miss the interaction you get with a coach load of dedicated gardeners !
In June I wrote about some unsung garden heroes
There are wow shrubs , showstopper stars of the garden but there are also some unsung heroes in garden plants that for some reason don’t get the attention they deserve and which are taken for granted in favour of the more show boaty types that feature on TV and in magazines and two examples are crocosmia and hypericum which I love and use extensively here .
Crocosima is a plant I would not be without , often called montebretia , originally from South Africa , it is planted as a bulb , has sword like green leaves and is a terrific architectural type plant for the front of border . It is a plant that is taken for granted unfortunately nowadays but it is easy to grow , propogates itself almost to invasive proportions and does equally well in shade but does not suit a wet site . Most people myself included rarely have to buy crocosmia as it is so easy to divide a clump and even the smallest pot of seven bulbs will spread itself to a metre wide in a few years and in some areas such as South West Ireland it is considered very invasive . Crocosima flowers in sprays mostly red and a good variety is George Davison along with Emily McKenzie but probably it’s most famous variety is Lucifer for its vivid red flowers but which I avoid as it grows to over a metre high and flops over in late summer unless staked but if you are prepared to spend a bit of time staking it then perhaps Lucifer is for you whereas I prefer the normal height crocosmia and give it lots of room and then you can just enjoy it with no further maintenance from March to November … one of my favourite plants .
My second unsung hero of a plant is hypericum which is in full bloom now with yellow flowers and will bloom it’s ass off from June to October . Hypericum is happy in most locations , sun or shade , can be sheared to the ground each year or left to it’s own devices and the one I always pick is hypericum hidcote named for the famous Hidcote Manor garden in the Cotswold’s where it was bred . The Hidcote variety is supposed to be a smaller or dwarf version but if not pruned it will grow to over two metres . I mostly trim our hypericums back about eight inches every winter but you can hack it to the ground and it will bounce back , a terrific undemanding shrub that delivers a stunning show of yellow flowers throughout the summer followed by red , black or white berries in the autumn . Hypericum is a great back of border shrub and I wouldn’t be without it .
Gardeners are always trying to prolong the flowering periods of plants especially perennials and one of the tricks has become known as the Chelsea crop because it is done when the famous Chelsea Flower Show is on in late May where after the first flowering of geraniums , lupins , you cut the plant to the ground and it will grow back quickly and flower again later in the summer . However it seems bees have been doing this for millenia as researchers from Zurich University have proved that the common bumble bee , bombus terrestris ( great name !) were making small pinprick holes or cutting small triangles out of leaves apparently for no reason as they were not eating the leaves … trials and experiments as reported recently in the journal Science revealed that plants damaged by the bees flowered earlier than the undamaged leaves … in some cases like tomato a whole month earlier and this allows the bees to collect more pollen as protein in the years when pollen is in short supply for the bees … when pollen is plentiful the bees don’t cut any holes in the plants … the researchers next tried to mimic the procedure by cutting holes in the plants used in the experiments but could not produce anything near what the bees doing … we are learning all the time from nature and as the article concluded last week “ not only are the bees smarter than we realised , they seem to be smarter than us too ” .
Certainly not an unsung hero in our garden is the gunerra , one of my absolute favourite plants ,which comes into it’s own in June and the huge leaves of the established clumps we have here are always dramatic . As I have often written in previous pages , gunerra is not a plant to everyone’s taste as the sheer size of it puts people off and while most visitors to the garden are intrigued by the impact of the massive leaves I have seen others visibly recoil when they first come across the clumps of gunerra in the water areas however it does require space and will crowd out any plant or shrub within two metres of the base … embrace the gunerra is my message !
Colour in the Garden March to June 2020
Covid 19 of course dominated the summer of 2020 and I wrote the following in my July Blog post .
Apart from a worry that Covid could spike again we are all approaching normality but at least as a result of the pandemic we have adopted better precautions at safeguarding ourselves such as hand washing and wearing face masks in shops etc. and I feel these will continue at least until a vaccine is found . I visited a friend’s garden last week within a group of five and even though we were outdoors only two did not wear a face mask … I was one not wearing a face mask as I still draw the line at outdoor use with lots of space among people I know who are not twenty five and attending rave or hip hop parties !
Now that we have time to evaluate the Covid and our national responses world wide to it there are radical views and opinions emerging such as the recent book by the important French philospher , Bernard – Henri Levy called The Virus in the Age of Madness … I have not read the book which has just been published but the Sunday Times of July 26th did an article on it . Basically Levy thinks ” there seems to be a collective desire to panic . It is not as big a disaster as we think ” . I must say I agree with what he says as for example “we did not have to destroy human contact , snitch on our neighbours , hand over political leadership to doctors and watching the spectacle of world leaders so terrified of the corona that they deemed to put the world on hold caring little for the outbreaks of hunger , violence against the poor and authoritarian takeovers that were sure to follow ” .
Levy does not argue that the lock down should not have happened just that in doing so we took away our enjoyment of life , the simple fact of a hand shake on greeting and most of all leaving people to die alone without a loved one by their side where he says ” your family being around – this belongs to the history of mankind . I believe we went too far , we should have authorised those who wanted to take the risk to escort the loved one to death .”
The July Post also featured the alchemis mollis as one of my plants that I consider to be taken for granted .
In recent posts I have featured shrubs and plants that are well known but for some reason taken for granted and not reckoned as stars of the garden and this month my spotlight falls on alchemis molis better known as ladie’s mantle . A gorgeous plant with evergreen leaves and beautiful sprays of yellow flowers in summer and you need only buy one plant of alchemis as it will self seed everywhere especially into gravel as it does here for us . I use it for front of border but it is also great for shady areas and I leave it self seed throughout our gravel areas as I love the informality of alchemis clumps and although a prolific self seeder it is never a problem as it is easily removed roots and all by sliding a spade under it and equally easy transplanting it to another part of the garden or for potting up as a gift as it takes without a problem in the new site just by adding some soil to it’s edges . Beads of water collect on the leaves of alchemis molis that look really beautiful and I can never understand why it is not considered one of the best perennial plants … it got it’s name apparently as alchemists in the Middle Ages considered the water beads on alchemis as the purest form of water that they would use in their experiments to turn base metal into gold , closer to witchcraft really but a good story for a lovely plant !
These two pots were bought in a sale and have been in the garden for the past fifteen years but over time they have been swallowed up by the vegetation to the point that they could no longer be seen and while I always knew they were there I just never got to reclaiming them from the rampant ground ivy and brambles that had taken them over plus I knew it would be a bugger of a job to clean off all the roque growth … and so it was but worth the effort and almost like getting a present of two lovely pots all cleaned up and gleaming ! Finding a new position for the pair was a challenge but I tried them here outside the back door at the top of the steps leading down to the garden , a kind of a cliched naff design look I know but they worked so I can live with the naff look and next up was what to plant , the pots are in full sun all day so perhaps annuals for summer colour or maybe even hostas but decided on the more formal look of box balls and again it worked .
Clonmel Garden Centre has a great selection of box balls in several sizes and I opted for a middle size as the planting should not dominate the mid size pots . I used my usual mix of filling … I maintain a few stock pots filled with a mixture of earth , leaf compost along , coffee grounds along with rain washed sand collected from the yard drainage channels and I use this as the standard base for all our pots and containers to which I add large pebbles and stones in the base of the pot to ensure good drainage then fill to about two thirds finished off to the top with John Innes potting compost and the final touch topped off with pea gravel after planting to suppress weeds but it also adds a nice finish .
Pots are great for patios , roof gardens , balconies and anywhere where space is limited for the normal planting beds and when I lived abroad , most of the time I only had a small balcony if I was lucky which I filled with all sorts of containers . Nowadays garden writers refer to planters rather than pots however I regard planters as long boxes suitable for a large group of flowers or plants and I still prefer to refer to pots as pots . Not letting pots dry out is the secret to growing plants in pots and regular watering is a must as even in our wet weather in Ireland pots can dry out so nothing beats a good long soak from the watering can . I find terracotta clay pots are best while ceramic pots have improved over the years to the effect that these are now just as good as the old fashioned clay pots and gone are the days when ceramic pots chipped and flaked in frost .
Plants in pots will tell you if they are suffering from drought as they will wilt to protect themselves but usually a good soak over two days will rescue them but you do need to keep an eye on them and it also helps in fact it is essential in my view that you position them where they will be in shade for part of the day .
In this garden we have lots of space and I use pots more for dramatic effect rather than as a place for plants and with big pots there is no need to keep them filled with plants all year round as they look good enough in themselves and I grow hostas in several pots but leave them empty throughout the winter .
In August 2020 Peter Cullen arrived for our first project together in a few years as I had an idea about cleaning up an area of the Lower Wood that had got completely out of control
This was an area of the woodland bordering on to the stream which we never did anything with as it was boggy and water logged and which has been taken over and chocked with huge brambles , an area we never went into that I used for throwing all the willow prunings since Snezana got a chain saw a few years and kind of forgot about until this month when I took a closer look at it and fought my way right into the edge of the stream where I saw that there was a nice collection of self seeded silver birch trees and clumps of thussock grass all happily thriving in the damp conditions and in total anonymity away from view … possibilities possibilities as Capability Brown famously said in the mid 18th century !
Peter Cullen arrived with his excavator and was given the brief to clear all the brambles and woody materials and then he and I would decide how to proceed from a clean palette – my original idea had been to sow a rough lawn through the trees to the water’s edge however we both saw that as he excavated the soil it just as quickly filled up with water that was obviously just under the surface so forgetting any thoughts of a lawn we decided to enhance the water and keep digging backwards until we hit dry ground and in a few hours Peter had created a small pond about a metre deep .
The excavated wet soil was laid along the banks of the new water area and will provide the ideal planting habitat next spring for hostas , darmeras , ligularia , primulas and other plants that like boggy conditions . I spent the next two weeks cleaning up the reclaimed ground between the trees , stripping the ivy off the trees and my next task will be to wade into the boggy ground between this new area and the stream and clean it up with a strimmer and then assess what planting it will allow between the self seeded silver birch that have colonised the area while naturally I will retain all the silver birch in situ and work around and through them .
Two weeks later the clean up continues getting ready for planting in the winter months
November 2020 and I have spent the past two months adding bog plants around the edges of the new water area .
Two gardening friends , Mildred Stokes and Margaret Rea , who both have fabulous gardens bursting at the seams with a great mixture of plants , donated two lots of bog plants that have outgrown their gardens . A collection of darmera and rodgersia which are favourites of mine , found a home in the new beds along the excavated water area which were created from the soil scooped out by the digger and layered along this area , good soil but of course wettish . I have slowly gone through our own collection of plants here and moved hostas and slips of bergenia along with ferns and lilies that I split up .
We had a break from gardening in October with a walk – slog – up Slievenamon
Slievenamon , six miles from Clonmel , is Ireland’s most iconic mountain which I saw every day on my way to school in the 1950’s and 60’s and which we see now from the house and the garden . The word slievenamon means mountain of the women in gaelic , Sliabh na Mban , and legend has it that Ireland’s most famous mythical hero is buried under the large cairn of rocks on the summit which is a bronze age burial mound from 1500 BC .
I grew up in Clonmel and to someone from Co. Tipperary , Slievenamon is “our ” mountain and over the past twenty years as we drove to Kilkenny or Waterford I have been pointing it out to Snezana and telling her of the legend of Fionn so this week I decided she should climb Slievnamon and see it up close and personal … but what I didn’t tell her was that it is one god awful unrelentless slog up and down !
Beautiful views across to the Comeraghs and along the valley between the Knockmealdown and the Galtee mountain ranges and of course the feeling of being in such a historical place with Neolithic tombs and standing stones dating back to 1500 BC showing that our ancestors venerated Slievenamon also .
Peter came back with the digger and tractor in October to complete the new rock installation in the Lower Field .
The crowded lane outside the house tells a story in mid October , another project was underway as Peter Cullen arrived with a digger , tractor and trailer to complete the island rock installation planned since I cut out the tear drop shaped design in the grass at the Lower Field in late August.
I always felt this space lacked something and after a visit to a friends garden in July I was really impressed with her separate perennial bed and decided this was what I would build however another gardening friend pointed out that while a perennial bed is lovely , it only flowers for two months and as this was to be both an island bed and a feature you would be looking at a collection of sticks for ten months of the year so it was back to the drawing board to come up with something that would give all year round enjoyment and so the idea of an island rock installation was born .
Although the space available for the proposed rock installation was quite large I didn’t want to over crowd it with rocks , five large pieces was my estimation of what it would take and I determined from the beginning that it would be just stark rock and gravel Japanese style , no plants . A neighbour of mine on the mountain , Pat , had a huge collection of rocks that he had unearthed while clearing the site for his house a few years ago and had generously offered me my choice to collect and take away .
Peter and I selected five beautiful large flattish rocks , all of the same granite and we had already picked out the places on each stone in the new design .
I had cut out the design and sprayed off the grass in late August and the next step was to cover the bare earth with rolls of mypex which will suppress any new growth through the gravel finish and then carry each rock from the mountain in the digger and line them up to make the final pTositioning … each rock had to be assessed and as the installation is in the middle of two paths the best “face ” had to be selected … this was the hardest part of the project and each rock was individually assessed and positioned and then walked around and positioned again until each rock clicked both in it’s relation to the overall shape of the design but also in relation to it’s four other companions … fussy to the point of nerdiness I know !
Getting the position of the rocks was tweaked several times and the last stage was layering with gravel to a depth of six inches , the gravel anchored the rocks and provided the perfect contrast for the island bed . I had thought originally that I would add perhaps two miniature Japanese weeping maples to the finished design and while that would work in some cases , here I am satisfied that it doesen’t need it and might even take away from the effect .
The finished rock intallation
As part of my regular A Walk in the Garden series I posted the following photos on October 21st 2020
In November we decided to continue excavating the size of the new water area .
No slackening off in the new water area created in September by clearing out an overgrown section in the swampy area backing onto the stream … overgrown doesen’t quite describe just how infested it had become with brambles up to two metres high and so waterlogged that just scraping the surface with the excavator brought water to the top so it was a logical decision to dig deeper and excavate a huge chunk of ground to a metre deep and create a fairly large new pond . The scooped out soil we layered along the bank creating a nice wettish base for bog planting and I have already transplanted off cuts from our hostas , lilies and acanthus together with donations from a friend who was dividing up a perennial bed so we got buckets of rodegersia and darmera which are ideal bog plants and two of my favourite architectural perennials with huge leaves . On the dryer edges I have added ferns and ground cover lamium while at the water’s edge to a depth of 4 inches under water I have added primulas and wild marsh marigold I have divided up from other parts of the garden .
They say a garden is never finished and of course it evolves and changes as your taste in plants and indeed your ambition changes over the years and you learn to never say never on garden designs and this is the case in point here with the new water area . We found that in extending one area a drop in level was created just beside it which never cleared of surface water after rain and became too boggy to use as a path so we decided to continue with the extension to include this new water logged part into the new extended water garden .
Peter Cullen arrived back again last week with his digger and quickly dug out the new area which as before immediately filled with water . Peter has been working on our garden project since April 2006 and has brought many ideas and tweaks to our plans and his expertise in landscape has been a major factor in the development of the garden as it is today , we work well together , no egos get in the way and we go with the best plan and sometimes as in this current work the plan is tweaked and made up as we go along . Peter is a maestro on the digger and can turn it through the tightest of areas , you want this tree removed , bang it is gone and twenty minutes with the digger can clear and dig out and area of thirty square metres and so it was last week and we ended up with twice the body of water in what was two months ago a no go wet area overgrown with brambles , now it is a small lake and ready for planting both with marginal aquatic pond plants and damp loving plants along the banks .
Finally while the digger was on site I decided to solve the problem of the large standing rock , our “ogham ” stone and move it from it’s original location at the edge of the wood where we first installed it in February 2010 as over the ten years the area around it has become overgrown and it no longer stood out or took the eye .
The new area is in the middle of the lawn in the woodland area and the stone now dominates again .
My Garden Blog for December 2020 summed up how Covid had impacted the year .
My Gardening Month December 2020 … A Bastard Year !
A phrase I read recently to describe this past year was that 2020 due to Covid has been a BASTARD YEAR , sums it up perfectly and God love anyone who has lost family or loved ones to the virus but good news for January 2021 with the roll out of the vaccine and hopefully we can all get our lives back on track again .
My Gardening Month 31st January 2021 … January is not my best loved month !
A new year , a new decade and hopefully the much promised vaccines will banish Covid and give us back our normal lives .
Moving trees in the garden in January 2021
We all have trees , shrubs and plants that are in the wrong place or that are not doing well and January is a great month to do something about that . Last month when we had the digger here we moved a multi stemmed silver that was not thriving in the front garden since planted five years ago and this month we tackled a parrotia tree also in the front garden . The parrotia is a small tree also known as the Persian ironwood originally from Iran and has a lovely sprawling habit with dark blue leaves like a purple copper beech . It has the most beautiful leaf colour in autumn , really gorgeous and you can never predict how it will branch out or what direction it will grow and certainly never straight up like a normal tree which is what I love about it .
The parrotia was doing really well in it’s spot in the front garden but I always knew from planting that it would be too crowded eventually in that spot but I planted it there because it was the only space , small as it was , that was available … I knew it was better suited in the woodland garden but I also knew the deer love the parrotia and have eaten three previous specimens planted in the Lower Garden so if this one was to survive the deer it had to be in the Front Garden .
I would never have been able to dig it out by hand with enough roots intact but with the digger back in the garden to finish the regravelling of the paths , Peter Cullen was able to whip out a large root ball and replant the parrotia in an area where hopefully it will take and be able to realise it’s full potential … it will take a year or two to bed in and I will babysit it for water through the summer months although moving it as we did in the dormant season it should be fine .
New project in the Lower Wood January 2021
I spent time in January putting some finishing touches to the edges of the water in the new pond we excavated in the woodland area , I had typed “the ” as in “ the finishing touches ” but realised I was being premature and this is just the beginning of a process that will run and run as I begin the planting up of the new area in the next few months .
I was able to source some beautiful stone from my neighbour , Sebastian , who had saved it from the original old farm buildings on his land and I used this as the foundation build of a series of rock steps to the water ‘s edge in two areas where I have dug in some off cuts of big leaved hostas from the front garden but I won’t be adding rock plants as this style would not blend in well in a woodland setting … also rockeries are hard to keep clean from weeds and eventually smother the rocks whereas here I want these rocks to be seen .
I love working with stone and the hardest part is first assembling the amount of stone needed and laying it out … I had used the digger to lay three big rocks that were in storage here for a few months since we built the rock installation in October until I found a place for them as they were a bit rough and not good enough for that project but here they were perfect and Peter Cullen whacked two of them into place with the digger .
And the third one , the largest which had a nice flat surface we moved into position as a bench overlooking the new water surface . The site calls out for a seat and rather than go for the traditional wooden bench I thought the rock was pretty cool … and the cat thought so too !
The rest of the stone was flat and normal size which I laid by hand and grouted them into place with a mix of gravel and earth .
The remaining water area will be left with natural edges where nature will take over and I will add water loving plants such as hostas , iris , primulas , marsh marigold most of which will be off cuts from our own plants here . Apart from adding a nice feature I felt it was necessary to build up these two areas with stone as one area bordered the path and it was safer to outline the water’s edge as there is a drop of a metre at this point and the other area was left sloping by the digger exposing the marl clay surface which could not be planted directly into with marginal water plants so the stone was built into a straight edge which I then ramped up with normal soil for planting .
We have over the years built up a large collection of garden pots and containers and tend to go for the unusual , the larger and colourful the better and sometimes unloved eccentric pots that end up in the bargain basement in Clonmel Garden Centre find a home with us and you can check out our collection on the Petrovska Garden website at
Generally when building a new project I sometimes move pots from other parts of the garden to the new area but these are always pots that somehow haven’t clicked and these I will move but we have pieces in the garden that have never been moved from their original position as from the beginning they have made that spot their own and it would leave a gaping hole if moved . We also have pots that were bought because they were just great pots that might not be available again and while they find a nice position in the garden somehow we know that this is not their forever home and they are being parked until the right spot comes along and so far the new water area has taken three such pots !
Moving large pots is tricky but apart from enhancing a new location it also serves another purpose and that is refreshing the soil in the moving process . I empty each pot before moving and then “ walk ” them to their new location , laborious true but safer that trying to lift them … I pack the bottom of each pot with rocks to help drainage and this makes them extra heavy but also means they won’t budge if given an accidental nudge … I then use the opportunity to refill each pot with a combination of new soil mixed with John Innes potting compost .
New pots are also acquired in March 2021
And old pots get broken ! A Hosta Elegans in the Front Garden does for it’s second pot in March having broken it first pot in December 2013 .
In March the design and planting of the new water area continued and I laid a path of concrete paving slabs .
In April I spent the entire month finishising both the planting of the new water area but I also added a path the entire length of the new stream along it’s entire bank . I had never intended this path but the newly exposed bank had such a wealth of natural planting , wild grass ‘s etc. that I decided it would be a lovely walk along which I could sow marsh loving plants and ferns as the soil there is peaty and wettish . It took a week of hard slog and a lot of calusses to transport the paving slabs and lay them each by hand .
I bought in some plants mainly ferns and hostas but then took and planted from other areas of the garden literally hundreds of geraniums , lamium dead nettle and water marginals marsh marigold and houtunia and the plan is that this area should have total ground cover within a year . All the planting is low growing as I want to be able to see across it through the conifers to the water .
The new path is now part of the landscape in the Lower Wood area
In the April blog I discussed the american skunk cabbage , americanus lysichtion .
Last month I featured the american skunk cabbage , americanus lysichiton , and as always readers commented on the dramatic colour of the flowers and while yes they are a knock out when you come on them in the garden the flowers are brittle and last only a week but the foliage following on is magnificent . They are water edge plants and in the right conditions can be invasive as for example throughout Louisiana they are considered a pest almost on the level of Japanese knotweed and have taken over huge areas of rivers and lakes . In Ireland and the UK they are a much prized perennial as when the flowers are over the American skunk cabbage grows magnificent architectural leaves almost a metre high .
The first time I saw the skunk cabbage in a garden or even heard of them was when on a cycling trip around Southern England in 1981 I saw them in a sunken garden attached to an old manor house and as it was early in the morning around 7 am I nipped in uninvited to have a closer look … suddenly a woman’s voice from behind me said “ you like the American skunk cabbage I see ” and that dear reader was how I met Hayley Mills … in her dressing gown with a cup of coffee in her hand out for an early morning stroll around her garden ! For readers those too young to remember the early 1960’s , Hayley Mills was the biggest teenage movie star in the world at the time … she wasen’t at all fazed to meet a lycra clad male in her garden at 7 am !
It was to be another thirty years before I was able to source some American skunk cabbage for our garden here as they are as scarce as hens teeth in the garden centres … in fact the only garden centre I have seen ever stocking them is our local Clonmel Garden Centre who in recent years have about five or six for sale each spring … and you need to be quick to get them … ahead of me ! Like the gunnera the skunk cabbage likes to be close to water but not in the water and it thrives in wet moist soil but is slow to settle in after planting and takes four or five years to thrive and after that no stopping it
In April I continued on Facebook the regular photo feature of A Day in the Garden and all the photos were taken on April 28th 2921
In May I wrote about the visit of my grand kids and titled the blog …. Go and Zen no More
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 !
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 … THEY NEVER STOP at which point all revenue legalities observed I would step back and let him pass 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 time 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 when we boarded a suspected drug smuggling ship in the North Sea off Harlingen . 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 September 1993
From a Walk in the Garden 21st May 2021
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 .
We visited the Aran Islands in June for a three day walking trip around Inismore , a memorable visit with hand knitted aran jumpers and a visit to the 3000 year old Bronze Age Fort of Dun Aengus thrown in !
In June with a good weather forecast we took a three day walking trip to the Aran Islands … to Inismore , the largest and most interesting of the islands which is 22 miles off the Galway coast and a ninety minute ferry trip from Doolin in Co.Clare . There is no car ferry to the Islands so transport around is by foot or bicycle , it is a unique landscape of stone and next stop is America ! It goes without saying that you need good weather as the Atlantic winds and driving rain are pretty constant all year round and luckily we caught a break for our three days .
Hardly anybody farms on Inismore these days and the fields which were once cleared by hand in the old days with blood sweat and tears are now empty , the big industry is from tourism with the famous Aran sweater the best seller although hand knits are now scarce as machine knit has taken over as young “wans ” these days are too busy with their social media to learn or have the patience to knit … I was given the name of a little shop in Kilmurvey where one might source a hand knit and as we walked in the lady was knitting away and Snezana walked out happy with a beautiful aran sweater just finished a few days previously .
The Aran island experience is the best of Ireland and remains unchanged through the thirty years since my last trip in 1992 when I cycled around Inismore and then as now the main tourist site is Dun Aengus Fort which dates from 1100 BC . Dun Aengus takes your breath away sitting on the highest point on Inismore from where it dominates the whole area for miles around , without doubt a royal residence and built right out to the edge of 500 feet cliffs it is awesome .
No trees on Inismore as you can imagine with the Atlantic gales they get coupled with the complete lack of any depth of top soil over the fields of stone but plenty of stone walls and I only saw one garden which was half way decent , no beds of perennials or tender japanese maples on the Aran Islands and the only trees I saw were a few scraggy sycamores .
The Aran Islands are remote now but one hundred years ago in December 1920 they were even more remote however that did not spare them from the Black & Tan atrocities when a British naval boat put a platoon of them on the island to search for IRA volunteers … this poor man , Laurence McDonagh, was shot dead as he tried to escape on foot across the fields.
And yes some Aran Sweaters were purchased !
In the June Blog I had a rant about the deer and what they do to the garden
My Gardening Month June 2021… Deer Deer and more f..king deer !
They are everywhere , coming down from the hilly terrain where there is plenty of open fields with cover for them to sleep up in during the day . At first of course we thought it was quaint and absolutely lovely to look out the window and see lots of bambi looking in at us but as soon as we started planting trees and shrubs the deer quickly became a pest as they ate their way through a lot of what we planted . Over the years we have lost thousands of euros to the deer who rip out branches , break young trees in half and eat all soft plants such as hostas and it is heart breaking to come out as I did last month to see three pots of hostas eaten to the ground .
We have had hunters in several times who would stake out the land and shoot deer throughout the season but each time we couldn’t go through with it as we agreed this has been THEIR territory for thousands of years and we are the intruders so learn to live with it .
And learn to live with deer we have , locking the front gate each night , installing light sensors around the house and keeping hostas and any maple planting in the front garden and our presence and the lights at night generally keep them away from the immediate front and back gardens . Also we have learned painfully what trees and shrubs the deer go after and generally what they leave alone such as silver birch , oak , mountain ash but anything exotic like maple or parrotia trees are catnip to deer . I say “ generally ” but they sometimes break these rules and I have found newly planted silver birch ravaged and the odd chunk of oak or ash ripped out .
My pride and joy always in May are four large pots of hosta June on the walk way beside the house and last month Snezana looked out from the balcony where directly below there were four young deer up on their hind legs eating the hostas to the base … now it was personal and for a few days after I was determined to bring in the hunters but of course the gene telling me this is THEIR land kicked in and interestingly there have been no deer in the front garden since and let’s hope they have realised that these four rogue deer had crossed a line … some hope as they probably realised there were no hostas left in that area !
It made me realise though that this garden can never be the best it can be , can never be the garden it could be nor reach the potential I had in mind for it as it’s variety and palette of trees , shrubs , perennials , would be hugely different if we didn’t live in deer country . The Lower Field in particular would have lots of japanese maples , parrotia trees , snake bark maples , huge beds of hostas and we would be able to plant with confidence that the tree or shrub would be there the following morning .
Roses and why I don’t grow them July 2021
Visitors to the garden often ask why there are no roses and there are two reasons , one that I am not a big fan of flowering shrubs in general unless they have outstanding foliage or bark as usually flowers last only a short time and the plant has little to offer for the remaining 49 weeks of the year and secondly roses are full of diseases such as black spot and white fly which disfigure the plant and I forgot there is a third reason which is that I have enough work to be doing without the added chore of dead heading roses on a daily basis !
Of course there are exceptions to every rule and I do grow one specific rose and that is the common semi wild rosa rugosa which can have white or pink flowers and the beauty of rugosa is that it has beautiful lime green crinkly foliage which is lovely and it is a rose that never gets either black spot or white fly . Pruning of rosa rugosa could not be more simple as you hack it to ground level in the Spring with a chain saw and it will love you all the more for it !
Gardeners love getting plants for free and all of us have a small circle of fellow garden enthusiasts that swap favourite plants or grow on cuttings as gifts when a particular plant is admired or lusted after . I have long admired the monster echiums a friend grows in her garden where once established they self seed like mad and this week she arrived in with three beautiful baby echiums that have been grown on for me .
This is the third set of echiums she has supplied over the past few years as the deer ate the first lot after which I got disheartened and decided not to attempt to grow echiums again but I fell in love with them again after a visit to her garden last Summer … a second set of echiums were duly handed over last October which I placed near the house where the deer might not reach … they flourished and by January this year they were three feet tall when a really hard frost got them … third time lucky so I will replant these little beauties and wrap them in fleece from January during the really hard frosts .
As you can see in the photo I took from a visit to Margaret’s garden a few years ago these echiums grow into monsters and prehistoric monsters at that , like something out of Jurassic Park and I will deal with both their size and self seeding habit if they grow this time for me .
We spent three weeks in Croatia in July 2021
Croatia’s summer is hard on plants and we spent a few weeks in July on the Adriatic coast in Dalmatia trying to bring the garden back to life as everything had hunkered down in almost three months of 35 deg daily and even the lavender had died back . After many years I have come to the conclusion that it is a waste of time planting a garden in the Mediterranean if there is not someone there to regularly water and the only reliables I have found are olive trees , rosemary , aquaves … and rosemary in particular has been a revelation as it has thrived and doubled in size in the garden and OK it is not a pretty shrub but it does provide a nice structure and doesen’t mind been chopped back .
Olive trees are unique but my absolute favourite plant in Croatia is the aquave which is dramatic and over the years I have built up a collection as the plant throws out plantlets that I grow on in pots for a year or two and then plant in their permanent positions .
Gardening is a journey where you learn constantly from your particular patch what will do well and more importantly what will survive neglect and what will thrive no matter what is thrown at it .
We grow a beautiful creeping plant , trandescandia , in Croatia which I first saw and marvelled at twenty years ago in Ivo Andric’s house , now a museum to the Nobel Prize winning author , in Herceg Novi on the coast of Montenegro . It is not the dull grey coloured trandescatia we know in the UK and Ireland which is an indoor plant and has the non politically correct local name of wandering jew but this adriatic version is an outdoor vibrant blue perennial which in less exposed places can remain through the winter but which normally dies back a bit but comes back in spring . It is easy to slip and does particularly well in some shade , it flowers but you really grow it for the fabulous blue leaf and it is with the aquave my favourite Adriatic / Mediterranean plant .
Braveheart in Petrovska Garden
I have had an unusual willow tree for years in the garden here that I have lost the name for , never saw it for sale since either , beautiful big strong paddle leaves which has grown five metres high but the effect of the leaves was rather lost but last year I saw it in a friends garden and they had kept it cut back as a large shrub and consequently the leaves were at eye level and really dramatic … this spring I took the brave step of pollarding our tree to four foot high , took cuttings and hoped that the tree would come back … it did and I am delighted with it and the cuttings also thrived and I have a further eight specimens coming along nicely !
In July 2021 I wrote about a visit some years ago to Skellig Michael
Last month I wrote about our trip to the Aran Islands and mentioned it was one of two iconic sights in Ireland , the second being climbing to the top of Skellig Michael Island to see the 6th century beehive huts . First off this trip is dangerous and you need to have a head for heights as you climb up 1000 very steep uneven steps and there is no guard rail so coming down is especially dangerous as the steps are not uniform … I would recommend ski sticks or at the very least a good walking stick .
Second thing to mention is the sea trip of 90 minutes each way can be rough and a lot of the time conditions are so rough that the boat cannot land .
The Skelligs have become world famous since they featured in the Star War series in 2014 so visitors are pouring in from abroad . The Irish Board of Works look after the conservation of Skellig Michael and they do a fabulous job with a very light touch and have refused to put in hand rails or anything that might take away from the uniqueness of the location even though there have been several deaths after people fell from the path and I can imagine if it was anywhere else there might be a funicular rail or cable car to the top .
We were there a few years ago and it is an experience to remember and one that you never forget but the price of the boat trip plus admission has shot up to a mouth watering 110 euros per person in the past three years .
I added to our collection of garden pots with three beauties recently bought in by the Clonmel Garden Centre , in my book you can never have enough pots and these went into the walkway in the new water garden area . As they are sited quite far from the house watering is something they will have to look after for themselves so I planted all three with the same combination of plants that can tolerate dry conditions , a central fern with three geraniums then topped with gravel to preserve the moisture and they have settled in well .
In August 2021 I wrote about weeding
Weeding is probably the one thing people hate about gardening but like the poor it is always with us as gardeners and short of laying concrete or a patio it is absolutely necessary if you have any size of a garden . You can of course try and control with weedkiller spraying but this apart from being decidedly non PC these days can also affect maybe even kill any plants it hits and it is difficult to be selective . Although I use round up every month on our paths I never use it among planting beds where I hand weed always and getting down hands and knees style I find is an excellent way of getting to know your soil and what plants are thriving . I spent three weeks in August catch up hand weeding in the new water garden area after being away in July … I actually like weeding and take my time with a trowel taking out all the roots especially of couch grass and butter cup and I find the secret is to relax into it , get into a rhythm and set aside say an hour at a time and don’t get fixated on how much you can clear in that hour but concentrate on getting all the roots so that at the end of the hour even if you have only cleaned a few metres square at least you have done a comprehensive clean after which you can do a regular comb over with a hoe or spade … I use a long handled spade for this job as I find the hoe just isen’t strong enough to slice through the weeds .
A slow leisuredly weeding session on hands and knees where you can lose yourself in thought is better than any meditation or wellness spa !
Everybody it seems nowadays is letting their lawns grow long , County Councils are letting borders along the roads grow wild and are sowing roundabout beds with wild flowers and you would think this would be a positive thing but apparently not as according to a report this week in the Irish Times as seed packages are being prepared with wild flowers not indigenous to the local areas and some of the resulting plants will take over to the detriment of the local wild flowers and in some caes will kill off the local varieties . Personally I am not a fan of so called “wild flower ” meadows which to quote a famous botanical report of 100 years ago is “ forging nature’s signature ” and my efforts here at a strip of land set aside without mowing for a wildflower patch has not been a success as while in the beginning of the growth in May the long grass is shiny and erect but come August it just looks sad and neglected and all I seem to grow in my managed and set aside wild flower area are thistles and docks , not a good look .
October 2021 and the Olive Harvest in Gornja Podgora
Growing up in the Ireland and UK of the 1950’e and 60’s olive oil was unknown in cooking or eating terms and my first introduction to it would have been with an ear ache where my Mam would have a little bottle bought in the local chemist’s shop and heated oil would be tipped with a spoon into your ear which was then topped off with cotton wool to keep it from running down your neck … olive oil for salads was unheard of in Ireland when I was growing up and we used Heinz Salad Cream for salads which we considered very posh and on my first trip to Greece in 1974 I was horrified by the amount of olive oil that came on all our Greek salads and I remember once in Delphi going into a restaurant kitchen to say go easy on the olive oil only to see a black dressed Granny upending a bottle of oil into my salad and hearing the bottle go glug glug … she gave me a look that stopped me in my tracks and that said don’t mess with the Nana … I have embraced olive oil ever since !
Late October in Dalmatia ( the coastal strip that runs the length of Croatia from Slovenia to Montenegro ) is the beginning of the olive harvest and entire families gather from home and abroad to help with the picking . It is a tradition that goes back two thousand years to Roman and Phoenician times to when olive oil production was first started in what is now Croatia . Traditionally the olive oil produced was for each family’s private consumption and a small amount was sold to tourists at local markets but in the past twenty years Croatian olive oil , still mainly picked with traditional methods , has become a thriving commercial industry regularly winning gold medals in international competitions around the world .
It is hard work picking olives by hand which is mostly the case in Dalmatia as the trees are grown up along hill sides where it is not possible to use machines and it is in most cases a family event with everyone from Grandma down lending a hand . Family members living abroad wherever they are in the world … the Croats like the Irish have always gone abroad as emigrants … they often arrange their holidays to be home in late October to help with the harvesting and this connects them with their homeland , it’s traditions and a share in the lovely olive oil as like with every produce your own home made tastes much better !
We grow our olives in a small grove of fourteen ancient trees and learn from the locals in Gornja Podgora every year on how to keep the trees healthy by pruning and fertilizing with natural products such as sacks of goat poo from the Biokovo mountains and absolutely NO pesticides are allowed among the olive trees in case the chemicals leeches into the olives . Standing around at the local olive mill when your olive processing slot is allocated is a great source of information and even with such a small production as ours you are still given the same attention as your neighbour with 300 trees … although I have noticed that almost everyone you ask has at least 300 trees but as Snezana says there are probably 25 people sharing those trees ! This year we met people home from Germany, Austria and Holland for the harvest and learnt that even though you might have 300 trees it depends on how young and fit you are to properly look after the trees throughout the year as this will determine the amount of olives you collect as trees that are not looked after quickly become feral with a thicket of branches and will be difficult to pick from and the yield will be much much lower .
We picked the olives over a two day period on 17th /19th October , which is an early harvest just when the olives are at the green stage about to turn blue/black when the olives are blushing as they say locally, as this provides the healthiest and the most flavoursome olive oil , we store them in crates as this prevents the olives from crushing and ideally the olives go to the mill at the most 48 hours after picking …any later and the olives need to be stored in water . It is intensive back breaking work as we hand pick all the fruit , no whacking or raking of branches or spreading sheets under the tree to catch the olives that fall in the picking process and up and down ladders like yo yo’s … we have only fourteen trees so I can only imagine the effort that goes into hand picking 300 trees … after a few hours the novelty of picking your own olives goes out of it and it becomes pure slog and one’s thoughts drift towards a chain saw for next year but when it is all over and you see YOUR olives being washed and crushed at the mill and that magic moment when the first golden liquid pours out … well it is magical … roll on next year again !
At the Olive Mill in Gornja Podgora October 2021
Let bottling commence !
This year we collected almost as much olives as our best season two years ago , 135 kgs of olives which after processing gave us back 18 litres of Eamonn & Snezana ’s Extra Virgin !
In November 2021 I wrote
This November after ten years in the ground the various parrotia trees also known as persian ironwoods are showing a gorgeous leaf colour and together with a solitary acer griseum , they have been growing well every year but this is the first time they have shown the lovely autumn colours they are famous for . Gorgeous leaf colour or not I would not grow any tree or shrub for a three week show , not worth it lovely and all as they are and I insist on every tree / shrub or perennial providing interest for at least eight months if not the full year as do silver birch . All the Japanese maples are worth growing also as they have a nice structure when not in flower and really nice bark as in the case of the snake bark maple or the acer griseum .
I always maintain that designing a garden for Spring / Summer is easy… the phrase I actually use is “ any idiot can design for summer ” … as the choice between bedding annuals , flowering shrubs and perennials is huge but designing for winter is trickier and hardest but if you get it right … and “ right ” for me involves lots of silver birch as their stark white trunks give almost an electric shock when you come across them in groups .
On November 14th as part of my occaisional series of photos titled A Walk in the Garden
Regular readers will know that I love big clumps of gunerra and they grow super well here , they have a real wow factor when you come around a corner and are in your face but they do die messily with the huge leaves turning black at the first sign of frost and flopping all over the grass but over the years I have patented a trick where I cut back the gunerra leaves , fold them in on themselves and make a neat parcel which has a nice shape and adds structure to their areas while the folded leaves protect the crown of the clump and in Spring the new leaves push up through the decaying last year’s leaves and it is a real sign of Spring for me and all the optimism that a new growing season brings … the king is dead long live the king !
But people still persist in wanting a garden that is low maintenance and demand the impossible from the garden centres where unless a shrub or perennial is in full flower it won’t sell so the garden centres will only order supplies in full bloom from the producers and this in turn forces the producers to bring the plant into flower under glass and put it out for sale in impossibly early . Hydrangeas and hostas are a prime example where they suddenly explode out onto the garden centre shelves in full vibrant bloom in April and of course these plants are not properly hardened off and have been hot house bred and pampered and even if the May frosts don’t knock them back they have spent such superhuman energy that they won’t bloom for another two years .
Hydrangeas don’t die back well and can look like a collection of twigs when November comes around where they look really sorry for themselves in the ground until they bud up again in April and are a liability on garden centre shelves as it takes a leap of faith to buy something that looks dead … that’s when you get bargains on sale … I never buy hydrangeas in bloom with big flower heads on them but in late November I buy what comes on sale and am prepared to give them time to recover and this week I bought nine hydrangeas at half price which will go into the semi shaded woodland which has damp soil , the perfect growing medium for them and in two years time they will be beautiful .
Sometimes we take time off from the Garden and visit Clonmel Garden Centre to view new arrivals in the large pot section !
Storm Barra hit Ireland in early December 2021 and we lost two trees including a large fifteen year old eucalyptus tree and while getting it chopped up we used the opportunity to cut out nine conifers that had died over the summer and all this kept us busy and took ten days to clear up and store in the wood shed .
These tree losses are what gardeners live with throughout the life of a garden , nothing is guaranteed to last forever . The eucalyptus I had planted in wettish ground fifteen years ago and while their roots love damp ground it also means that the anchoring system the roots provide sometimes isen’t strong enough to support the adult tree and we have lost several over the past few years .
The conifers were part of a wood planted forty years ago by the previous owner of the land and are nearing the end of their natural life but unfortunately three of them were part of the design I used last January for the new water area and I had built a path specifically around them as a feature … still I knew they were not great looking trees so there is now an opportunity to plant alternatives and I found a new silver birch , new to me that is , a Himalayan birch called Doorenbos , which is smaller than the normal jacquemontii birch but with even whiter bark … silver birch would have been my first choice anyway for the area but I had left the conifers standing as they were still alive but their forced removal is no loss and has opened up more light while the silver birch will bring an airiness to the entire patch … the conifers are now chopped and stored in the wood shed and next winter will fuel the stove and their ash after burning used as fertiliser in the flower garden .
Gardens evolve all the time and should but I hadn’t expected that there would be a major change so early in the new water area after only nine months but the removal of those four large trees needed an urgent reset and apart from planting some extra silver birch I also ended up moving two large pots into the new area for a bit of extra impact as I felt the planting in their old positions had thickened out and their presence there was no longer necessary and they do add that extra oomph in their new location and now I see that a Japanese stone lantern could be the next addition to the area beside the water , watch this space !
Feng O’Shui in the house and garden December 2021 !
We had our downstairs windows removed last week as they were 25 years old and replaced with a more modern design which opened up the rooms more to the garden outside and I was remined of a gardening friend who designed his entire house on feng shui principles . Feng shui literally means wind and water , the philosophy is 3000 years old from China and is the art of arranging buildings , furniture , space and your life to achieve harmony and balance and most of it is very much common sense for me as it sets out rules on colour , separating work and rest places in the house , keeping the house tidy … but it is at the next stage I get a bit wary of feng shui as it goes on to preach that the world is driven by unseen often negative forces and I back away from any further adherence to feng shui rules as I gather that real devotees let feng shui rule their every waking moment .
But I still find a lot to admire in feng shui and when walking around the friend’s house I loved some of the touches especially where windows had been placed for no other reason than to frame a particularly nice view of their garden .
Our house here like most houses was built on an undeveloped site with traditional windows in all the usual places and when we bought it back in 2000 I designed the garden around it with favourite trees , did I mention silver birch before (!) to be seen from within the house and without knowing it created feng shui in reverse , the garden as a room outside !
Our old windows had faux Georgian bars inserted within the double glazing and apart from now being wildly old fashioned these did block out a certain amount of light and definitely blocked out a clear view of the “ room outside ” … just how much I didn’t realise until they were replaced last week and now the white of the silver birch stand out really well and my gaelic version of feng o’shui is great !
In the December Blog I wrote about the Kosovo Roma Girl and the Turkish Gypsy girl
It was February 2011 I was having a coffee in Kosovo in a Pecs café when this little Roma girl passed holding her hand out looking for money and even though Kosovo was and is a male dominated society , here she was on her own begging for money and I was struck by the air of independence and confidence she had .
I keep this photo on my computer home page and often look at it and wonder what became of her , I hope she has a good life .
In May 2015 we visited a Roman archaeological site called Zeugma on the Euphrates river close to the Turkish border with Syria where we walked through fields of pistachio trees which I had never seen before and then on to Gaziantep museum on the Turkish / Syrian border where the finds from Zeugma are housed .
The most famous mosaic from Zeugma dates from 100 AD and is of a young girl who has become known as the Turkish Mona Lisa and world famous as the Gaziantep Gypsy girl and looking at it now and while 2000 years separate them I am struck by the resemblance .
I wish her and all of you a very Happy New Year and Sretna Nova Godina for all my Balkan friends in 2022 .
January 2022 , a New Year in the Garden
The resident gardeners of Petrovska Garden in January 2022
Proof reading the January Blog
Favourite tree in late January 2022
There is an excitement about the end of January always for me because for Irish people the 1st of February , St. Brigid’s Day , is the first day of Spring , the end of Winter and the light still there until 6 o’clock gives the feeling that the gardening year is beginning now !
January is the month in which garden writers queue up to give their advice to beginners and not so beginners along with their new year resolutions and I particularly like the advice Rachel de Thame , a gardener I really enjoy reading , gave in her Sunday Times column where she lists 22 “ Tips for budding gardeners ” and then at the end says ignore them all and go with your instincts , plant what YOU like , ignore advice as after a while of trial and error you will find your feet as a gardener .
After 40 years of gardening and having built and developed two large gardens I have found that there is only one rule and that is right plant right place .
Follow that and you will be find and as simple as this rule is , it is cunning because selecting the right plant means you have to read up and study what the right plant is for any particular place and you will learn soon enough after a few expensive blunders !
“Doing anything in the garden at the moment ” is a regular question throughout the year and as a rule both of us here would be in the garden every day doing something or other and unless I have a specific job such as planting a new tree or shrub , normally I base tomorrow’s work on what I have seen on my walk around today . Winter is where the hard pruning and planning for the summer months occurs and I always walk in the garden with the secateurs in my hand as there is always something that needs cutting back . A quick recap of the past month’s work would be collecting the cut wood in a trailer from ten trees from the Lower Wood area and storing it in the wood shed , planting eight new hydrangea shrubs bought in a garden centre sale , digging up a ten year old weeping silver birch and replanting it in the new water area , positioning and planting up a new large pot , digging out and planting five wild self seeded silver birch trees , pulling up and cutting out brambles across the entire garden , taking a hundred cuttings of golden willow and red dog wood and planting in the wild grass area … generally a few hours work every day .
This month I finished taking out brambles around the garden and a few months ago “ discovered ” gardening gloves and this has been a revolution for me and my relationship with brambles !
In forty years of gardening I have never used gloves , preferring to feel my fingers in the earth while weeding and as for pulling brambles with bare skin I have been lucky I never caught an infection as I ended up with my arms and hands lacerated by thorns . You need to spend money on good strong gardening gloves as the usual semi disposable type sold in supermarkets and indeed most garden centres are useless , pure cosmetic and usually given as gifts but after any serious use they will be ripped apart … think heavy leather gloves more biker in looks and a good pair will last years . I will only use gloves for brambles though as the politically incorrect part of me still thinks gardening gloves are for sissies and also I like my fingers to dig in and make contact with the soil !
In the January Blog I had a rant about Monty Don’s latest TV programme , The Adriatic Garden in three episodes .
Monty Don had a new three part garden series on BBC in January called Adriatic Gardens which although beautifully filmed as always , I was not impressed by . I like Monty Don’s TV work on Gardener’s World and love his writings but find his specialist TV programmes a bit off . The Adriatic series started with gardens around Venice , most of them private gardens owned by the super wealthy and I found them unexceptional apart from the fact that they existed on probably the most expensive real estate in the World but I found Monty too deferential to Count this and Contessa that for my liking .
The second episode was devoted to Croatia more especially to Dalmatia a place I know a lot about as I garden there myself throughout the year but again disappointing as Monty seemed so wide eyed incredulous that anything was growing there at all due to the Summer heat and the rocky soil and he came across as very condescending in his interviews with local people there. Then he featured Plitvice National Park and beautiful as Plitvice is , stunning in fact and I have both stayed and visited there many times but it is over 80 miles inland from the Adriatic
Coast and in no way can qualify as an Adriatic garden .
One thing he did pick up on which I had never really realised before was that Croatians don’t grow anything they can’t eat and this applies right through the Balkans where anything such as home grown vegetables that will augment the family economy is precious so aubergines , spinach , tomatoes , olives , potatoes , onions are far nicer to look at than roses or perennial plants !
Sadly the final third episode of Monty Don’s Adriatic Gardens was equally disappointing with a huge chunk of it devoted to Athens and Hydra both of which are in the Aegean Sea and nowhere near the Adriatic last time I checked . The segment on Athens features allotments in the city … allotments for f ..k sake… Adriatic gardens ? … and a new public park … again who wants to see a newly made public park and certainly not allotments . The Hydra segment was equally embarrassing , two gardens for wealthy expats on Hydra with more money than any authentic Aegean sea garden ethos .
Monty obviously has huge clout at the BBC and good luck to him as he is a fantastic down to earth gardener and presenter and obviously part of his deal to stay with the BBC is to indulge him in making this type of one off programmes and after all if he walks away from Gardeners World who will they replace him with … Toby Buckland or Adam Frost , both smug gardening gurus who the public can’t stand ?!
In February we spent a week in Tenerife
Irish people for the past fifty years have had a special relationship with the Canary Islands for a spot of winter sun however it is a relationship that I have managed to avoid as sitting around a pool is not my thing but earlier this month we both decided that a week in t shirts and shorts sounded good and headed off to Tenerife .
Tenerife delivers 25 deg of heat in February which is the main reason for visiting as basically there are no famous historical sights or towns and the names of Playa de las Americanos and Los Christianos tell you all you need to know i.e.manufacured tourist traps with imported sand and a mile long strip named “ The Golden Mile ” which has all the discrete charms of Trump Towers .
That said after the initial shock of Porto de la Cruz where we were staying , all lava rock , black and gloomy with wind prone dangerous rock strewn beaches , we enjoyed ourselves and would go back again . We went without any expectations but we enjoyed it , the people were really nice , food was great and the balmy 24 deg. In early February will be the reason we will go back .
The Canary Islands were conquered and taken over by the Spanish in the 1480’s as a staging post for their ships to the Americas and they slaughtered the local population , the Quanche , as they did in Peru with the Incas and in Mexico with the Aztecs . It was genocide actually to the degree that there is no trace of the Quache people today with not even the minutest DNA surviving in the present day population of the Canary Islands . The Quanche people were aboriginal and primitive without a written language whose origins back in 6000 BC were from Africa with modern day Morocco only sixty miles away with similarities to the nomadic Berbers of today . I get the feeling that the present day population of Tenerife are awkward about the “ disappearance ” of the Quanche people and would like to make amends and the impressive statues you see in Candalaria are a gesture towards the clearances perpetrated 600 years ago on the original people of Tenerife .
Tenerife is just off the coast of West Africa and gets a lot of sand blown over from the Sahara and of course the island is one series of ancient extinct volcanoes , nothing and I mean nothing grows on the south side facing Africa where it is all black lava . The north side gets some moisture from the Trade Winds but again there are no native plants growing there and everything you see has been brought in by Spain from it’s former colonies in South America . Very fertile soil on the north side of Mount Taide allows huge agriculture especially potatoes and plantains which look like bananas but which are used mainly in cooking . The common tree is a species called Canary pine and they grow the imported Monterey pine alongside it .
We spent a morning in the Botanical Gardens of Port de la Cruz which are magnificently tropical but again fabulous as they are and magical as the garden is , none of the plants are native to the islands . No disrespect to the creators of the various botanical gardens I have visited all over Europe but I find them artificial and a little contrived as in a Greatest Hits CD with all the world’s best shrubs and trees assembled together and there is no soul .
This was an interesting tree from South America as when the tree canopy spreads out individual branches will drop down new trunks to support it and it ” walks ” outwards .
Now this is a fern !
Tenerife above all has Mount Taide , the highest mountain in Spain and when it last erupted in 1909 the lava flow obliterated the entire town of Garachico … magnificent scenery in the Mount Taide National Park and the only place on the entire island that felt real to me and not Las Vegas’s honky tonk cousin .
War in Ukraine February 2022
Snezana and I worked for twelve years in Bosnia and saw at first hand the horror that war brings , the loss of life and the refugees on the road either fleeing from the fighting or expelled as a result of ethnic cleansing and who thought that after Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990’s that we would see another war in Europe ?
Just as not all Serbs were responsible for the policies of Milosovic equally not all Russians are responsible or support what Putin is doing now but what he has done is unforgiveable .
Snezana spent four years in Kiev with the EU and and another four years in Eastern Ukraine with OSCE on the front line in Mariupol and it is unbelievable that Putin has put women and children cowering in bomb shelters in this day and age and you would like to have thought that the world has moved on from one Leader’s megalomania .
March 2002 Spring is coming beware & prepare for slugs !
The poor old RHS , Royal Horticulture Society, got it in the neck recently when it made headlines about how gardeners should no longer class slugs as pests … they might just have got away with that comment but then they added we should treat slugs as GARDEN VISITORS !
A collective howl went up from gardeners everywhere along the lines of garden visitors my arse !
To cap it all the UK Daily Telegraph wrote an editorial titled “ Gardeners slugging it out ” and said the RHS statement was like saying “burglars should not be called criminals but evening visitors and went on to say that biological warfare against slugs is the only method as although slugs “ may be lovely BUT NOT ON OUR PRIZE PLANTS ”!!
The debate on slugs as univited guests then spread to the letters page of the Daily Telegraph and I particularly liked this letter from a reader in Middlesex !
“ To protect our hostas we bought four Aylesbury ducks to eat the slugs and for the first time the hostas reached their full leaf unscathed – until the ducks realised that hostas were also a great delicacyand shredded every plant ”.
It is hosta time early next month and the first shoots will be popping up the first week in April with an army of hungry slugs waiting for them and if you don’t get them before they get to your hostas it will be bye bye until April 2022 … High Noon so get the slug pellets out !
New Shed in the Garden March 2022
Snezana decided to clear and tidy up a small area behind where the new steel shed has earlier this month replaced the old wooden one , an area we had neglected previously but in preparing the site for the new shed it presented an opportunity . It is a small sloping piece of ground , good soil and a nice amount of sun throughout the day and the first thing was to put in some steps and then lay some paving slabs . I planted an apple tree and four shrubs , a fuschia , a physocarpus , a hydrangea , a caster oil plant plus a hypericum … all shrubs that will grow to a medium height and are fuss free yet have interesting foliage plus a flowering period throughout the summer for the hydrangea and the hypericum finishing off by adding ground cover vina minor , lamium and geraniums .
These are all ordinary shrubs , nothing exceptional or fussy , which are often neglected and overlooked but there was a method to my madness in going for these as it is an area not in your face in the garden behind a shed and an opportunity to select shrubs that will grow away without the need for great attention but yet will actually meld together very well . The caster oil plant , fatsia japonica , is the more tender as I picked a less well known variety “ green fingers ” which will be an exotic all year round shrub that should eventually grow to over five feet and beside it the physocarpus tops out at four feet and has great blue leafed foliage , the perfect foil for the glossy green of the fatsia while the hydrangea , hypericum and fuschia should be in flower for most of the summer and all can be hacked back to the ground each spring .
In April 2022 I added details of an article I wrote on Olive Oil
After my post in October about olive growing in Croatia and our experiences in picking the olives and having them processed at the local Mill in Podgora I was asked to write about the project by the Editor of , a quarterly magazine devoted to Mills in Ireland and the UK . The article was published in the March 2022 edition and the following extracts give a flavour .
The olive trees had not been given much individual attention for over twenty years and had gone quite feral so we embarked on a two year programme of pruning and feeding during which we didn’t get much of a crop .
We have added five extra trees since then , an olive tree takes up to six years in the ground to produce a first crop of olives but trees can live almost forever and I have seen olive trees in Israel which are over five thousand years old. We pruned the olive trees hard that first year , kept them weed free and spread organic waste under them and each year we now layer the ground with bags of sheep and goat manure sourced locally from the farmers on Biokovo mountain , smells to high heaven but pure luxury for the olive trees with the result that production has increased from eighty kilos two years ago to almost double that this year .
All Dalmatian people have olives in their DNA and anyone you speak to has an opinion and is extremely knowledgeable and helpful . One thing we have changed is the pruning of the olive trees as there is a different tradition in Croatia due to the mountainous terrain where the trees need to be hand picked and over the generations pruning has been designed to keep the trees bent low and easier to pick from a standing position but we prefer the classic Tuscany look with the olive tree growing into a nice wine glass shape and so we are pruning and training our trees to grow upwards … all the better also to drape fairy lights over the branches around an outdoor dining table !
I have always thought that dining al fresco under olive trees was the ultimate in cool and I remember back in the 1970’s sumptuous photographs in a book by Terence Conran about his house in Provence , all natural stone floors and olive trees and while my life style and wherewithal differs from Terence’s quite a bit still we have olive trees in common !
Growing up in the Ireland and UK of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s olive oil was mostly unknown in cooking or eating terms and my first introduction to it would have been with an ear ache where my Mam would have a little bottle bought in the local chemist’s shop and heated oil would be tipped with a spoon into your ear which was then topped off with cotton wool to keep it from running down your neck … olive oil for salads was unheard of in Ireland when I was growing up and we used Chef Salad Cream for salads which we considered very posh and on my first trip to Greece in 1974 I was horrified by the amount of olive oil that came on all our Greek salads and I remember once in Delphi going into a restaurant kitchen to say go easy on the olive oil only to see a black dressed Granny upending a bottle of oil onto my salad and hearing the bottle go glug glug … she gave me a look that stopped me in my tracks that said don’t mess with the Nana … I have embraced olive oil ever since !
Beautiful as sitting under olive trees is I didn’t expect the experience that harvesting your own olives brings , how involved you become , how lovely your own olive oil tastes and more to the point how little yield there is from olives as from 150 kilos of olives you get only 20 litres of oil . However we are delighted with our current yield but this will increase when the five extra young olives trees we planted come on stream .
Our local olive mill is in the lower village , a modern mill with a very efficient procedure which over an eight week period from mid October onwards works on a 24 hour basis and the entire village area is humming with both the collection of olives and the olive oil processing . As I said today’s Podgora Olive Mill is modern with gleaming state of the art machinery but attached to the modern premises is a museum with all the old fashioned equipment and mill stones , old sepia toned photographs from the early 1930’s showing the olive oil harvest in those days .
The old photographs show all weather beaten happy faces but don’t be fooled by the happy faces as olive harvesting then as now is back breaking work and a failed harvest could be disastrous for the economy of local families .Traditionally the olive oil produced was for each family’s private consumption and a small amount was sold to tourists at local markets but in the past twenty years Croatian olive oil , still mainly picked with traditional methods , has become a thriving commercial industry regularly winning gold medals in international competitions around the world .
It took us two full days to collect the olives , we hand picked every one and if an olive dropped on the ground it was discarded but having seen the quality of what neighbouring pickers included in their baskets and which they have been doing for generations we won’t be so picky next year .
Mentioning next year illustrates one of the perils of growing olive trees is that there can be an attack across entire regions of olive fly , a little black fly that burrows into the olive that can destroy an entire crop and last year for example there was no olive oil harvest throughout Dalmatia … commercial growers can spray against the olive fly but rarely in Dalmatia as olive trees are largely family owned and people there are very organically minded , don’t like using commercial sprays and it is not unusual for families to own up to 300 olive trees spread in small pockets across several locations … they are also very proprietorial about who owns what and you daren’t touch an olive that isen’t yours , very Sicilian !
Picking olives like picking grapes may sound romantic and artisan but make no mistake it is hard work with aching arms and fingers at the end of the day .
Standing around at the local olive mill when your olive processing slot is allocated is a great source of information and even with such a small production as ours you are still given the same individual attention as your neighbour with 300 trees … our first olive picking experience was magical and as olive growing virgins we were bowled over by the comraderie and helpfulness as we were welcomed into the olive growing community of Podgora and we happily stood around the mill shooting the breeze like seasoned veterans !
Family members living abroad wherever they are in the world … the Croats like the Irish have always gone abroad as emigrants … often arrange their holidays to be home in late October to help with the harvesting and this connects them with their homeland , it’s traditions and a share in the lovely olive oil as like with every produce your own home made tastes much better .
This year at the Olive Mill we met local people home on holidays from work in Germany , Austria and Holland , back to help out for the harvest and learnt that even though you might have 300 trees it depends on how young and fit you are to properly look after the trees throughout the year as this will determine the amount of olives you collect as trees that are not looked after quickly become feral with a thicket of branches and will be difficult to pick from and the yield will be much much lower .
Arriving at the the Mill , the olives are weighed and then when your time slot arrives they will have cleared through and cleaned the machinery after the previous customer so there is no mixing of olives and your crop is tipped into a holding cage where it is sieved and power washed for any leaves or bits of branches attached , next the cargo moves through a centerfuge type washing system and after that the olives including the stones are ready for crushing with the entire procedure taking about an hour . Finally the oil starts to flow , a great moment when the first oil comes out into the pan and from there fills into your 20 litre plastic containers …none of your fancy Provence type containers in Dalmatia as olive oil production is a no nonsense event , one they have been doing without fuss or dressing up these past thousand years and one on which most families harvest perhaps 300 litres of oil for their normal consumption . We with our expected 20 litre harvest had turned up with suitably designer type five litre dark glass bottles only to be advised by the locals to ditch these and opt for the more practical plastic 20 litre containers they all use .
We picked the olives this year over a two day period on 17th /19th October just two days after the Olive Mill opened for the season , which is considered an early harvest just when the olives are at the green stage about to turn blue/black , when the olives are blushing as they say locally, as this provides the healthiest and the most flavoursome olive oil , we store them in crates after picking as this prevents the olives from crushing and ideally the olives go to the mill at the most 48 hours after harvesting …any later and the olives need to be stored in water .
It is intensive back breaking work as we hand pick all the fruit , no whacking or raking of branches and up and down ladders like yo yo’s … we have only twelve trees so I can only imagine the effort that goes into hand picking 300 trees … after a few hours the novelty of picking your own olives goes out of it and it becomes pure slog and one’s thoughts drift towards a chain saw for next year but when it is all over and you see YOUR olives being washed and crushed at the mill and that magic moment when the first golden liquid pours out and when you get home that first taste the same day with crusty bread dipped in a saucer of the new olive oil … well it is magical … roll on next year again !
In May 2022 I wrote about a favourite tree , the purple hazel , corylus and the large shrub / small tree , Viburnum opulus or snowball tree
Another tree beloved of gardeners especially in the UK is the hazelnut or Corylus both for the nuts but more often because it can be coppiced every five years and the long branches which grow straight and narrow and are used for staking in the garden which is a big British gardening tradition for their long borders . We grow the blue leafed hazelnut here as the leaves are more blue than copper beech and bigger but for some reason perhaps because of it’s dual use for nuts and coppiced branches it is a very undervalued tree for garden impact and it hardly ever features on garden writers “ Ten best trees ” . All great British gardens have a “ nuttery ” tucked away somewhere , the most famous being at Sissinghurst and these are coppiced to the ground every few years but although we have the space and crucially the deer don’t eat hazelnut trees , I enjoy and use them as single specimens in various areas throughout the garden .
A lot of gardeners regard May as a waiting period , a limbo in the garden’s growth before that huge infusion of colour in June and July … not for me as flowers are not a priority , my gardening philosophy is more leaf and structure but don’t think I am against perennial flowers , I like flowers but they are not my first objective in a plant or a shrub and I never buy a tree or a shrub just for the sake of it’s flowers .
There are always exceptions of course and while I would never buy a cherry blossom tree for example gorgeous and all as they are in flower , blink and you’ve missed it as the flowers are there for two weeks … and then a nondescript tree for the remaining fifty weeks of the year but a tree I would always include is the Viburnum opulus better known as the snowball tree which is a show stopper in the garden when in flower but also has a nice structure and leaf for the rest of the year … but the snowball shape flowers alone are worth having even for those three weeks of flowering .
And the Chelsea Flower Show May 2022
Now that Covid has become manageable the month of May means the Chelsea Flower Show which the BBC gives terrific coverage to with Monty Don and Joe Swift presenting highlights every night for it’s five days . Monty is of course marvellous totally without ego in his presentation style and while I can tolerate Joe Swift , just about , it is still all about Joe Swift and not the Chelsea Flower Show and apart from Monty Don all the other BBC presenters are the same … Rachel de Thame is great and down to earth and again no ego but Carol Klein is a real pain and while no doubt a real plants expert , tries too hard to be full of bonhomie which to me is totally false .
I am not saying the medal awards at Chelsea are predetermined but it is easier for the experienced gardeners to win rather than an outsider or someone with their first garden at Chelsea . The famous medal winners such as Chris Beardshaw ,Sarah Eberle and Andy Sturgeon who between them over the past fifteen or so years have won over 33 gold medals and over eleven best in show garden awards and these designers not only attract the wealthiest sponsors … a show garden can cost from 500,000 euros to a million to stage … so they can have better trees , hard landscaping etc. but also they are so experienced at Chelsea they know what the judges want in a gold medal winning garden and they deliver just that and for example both Beardshaw and Sturgeon got full marks for their garden this year at Chelsea .
All the designers say that they design for themselves but I am sure they are influenced in their design by what they know the judges will award points for .
The judges set out four categories with a total of 36 points up for grabs and they are looking for absolute perfection especially in the award of a gold medal .The criteria they are looking for starts with the garden’s initial selection for Chelsea then covers design . concept , originality , layout , construction and planting and you have 19 days to build the garden in the Chelsea grounds and then the garden is allocated either excellent ( four points ) , very good ( three points ) , good ( two points ) , poor ( one point ) across the categories so to get maximum points of 36 you really need to have the experience to give the judges what they are looking for and everything has to go right for you on the day , the plants have to be in bloom with absolutely no room for the slightest chip of a rock or a paving stone .
Is it a fix for the gold medals , no definitely not , British upper class sense of honour would not allow that but it is pretty incestuous at that top level !
The BIG theme this year at Chelsea was rewilding and the Best in Show was won by Lulu Urquhart and Adam Hunt with their garden called “ A Rewilding Britain Landscape ” complete with upmarket Cotswold type casual and fake untidiness and a large dam with beavers … naturally the beavers didn’t make it to Chelsea , next year there will probably be robot beavers at Chelsea … to be honest you wouldn’t give it a tin medal at the Clonmel Flower Show and in fairness Monty Don asked the question “ can it be classed as a garden ” … enough said !
In case you missed it , Abba new avatar show opened in London on May 22nd so you can forget your Led Zepplin and Beatles records I am sticking with my 1982 copy of Abba Gold !
Abba said it best … Rewilding That’s the name of the Game !
Croatia in May 2022
Croatia again for a few weeks in early June where the garden was suffering under 35 deg of heat every day leaving the soil parched . Luckily I have now got the weeds under control in the gravel garden which used to be a back breaking job to clean but now a quick run through it with a hoe does the trick . Last October I laid two paths with a six inch layer of pebbles taken from the beach and every trip now I top it up with fresh stones and I feel the depth of stone together with the sea salt leaching down through to the top soil has killed off a lot of the perennial weeds .
I planted up these terracota pots in October 2021 on the balcony in Croatia with a selection of drought resistant cacti and between them I added the blue trandiscantia for colour , they have thickened up and come through the winter well . The pots I bought in a local Makarska hardware supermarket and while they fit in and look well they are the usual Vietnam mass produced and nothing out of the ordinary .
However these pots are something special !
A local friend , Mate , made these pots for me out of old terracotta roof tiles , great recycling and gorgeous to look at , I placed them in the gravel area and planted with aloe which don’t need regular water … now I have to think of a way of getting some more of these pots back to Ireland !
And believe it or not this replica life size Easter Island Statue was for sale at a Wexford Garden Centre in March 2022
I wrote about the passing of Dervla Murphy , the great Irish travel writer in May 2022
Dervla Murphy , the great Irish travel writer and eccentric passed away last Month at the age of ninety . Dervla for Irish people was a national treasure who travelled all over the world on her 3 speed bicycle in journeys of up to nine months and wrote over 25 books about her experiences .
Can you imagine walking across the mountains of Peru over a period of nine months for 1200 miles … with a mule to carry a tent , essential supplies AND a daughter of eight years … Dervla did it in 1983 , an amazing experience and wrote a book about it “ Eight feet high in the Andes ” .
The New York Times in their obituary described Dervla as “ A curious, intrepid loner from Ireland, she famously went from Dunkirk through Europe and then to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India — mostly on two wheels.”
In 1992 I was on my way back to Rosslare after a six day cycling trip in Cork / Kerry and had stopped to take a photo outside Lismore in Co. Waterford when a woman out for a walk stopped and asked me some detailed questions about my touring bike , my panniers , how many gears etc. and how far I had come that morning and as I was airly saying that I had set out from Cork City a few hours ago and was now pushing on over the Knockmealdowns to Clonmel and then on to Rosslare and that yesterday it was Killarney to Bantry with an overnight in Cork and and and and … when the lady says I used to do a bit of cycling myself … it slowly dawned on me “I have just been showing off to Dervla Murphy haven’t I ” and she grinned and that was how I first met Dervla Murphy !
Dervla wrote one of the best books about travel through the Balkans called Through the Embers of Chaos , Balkan Journeys which she wrote in 2001 about a trip she took on a bike from Zagreb to Albania and I knew the route she took as my job for fifteen years with the EU was to travel all across the Balkans and I take my hat off to her as driving on some of these roads let alone cycling was heavy going not to mention dangerous with all sorts of characters floating around just after the Yugoslav wars … one tough lady .
A few years ago after Dervla published her two last books in 2015, Between River & Sea and A Month by the Sea , based on her experiences in the West Bank and Gaza I wrote to her and later met her when she gave a talk about Palestine in Clonmel .
A few years ago after Dervla published her two last books in 2015, Between River & Sea and A Month by the Sea , based on her experiences in the West Bank and Gaza I wrote to her and later met her when she gave a talk about Palestine in Clonmel .
Dervla fell passionately in love with the Palestinian cause and while her beliefs would not be mine she was as always fully committed and Between River and Sea, her last major work , is a great informative read .
All the major newspapers around the world , The New York Times , Daily Telegraph , The Sunday Times , The Guardian carried her death and printed obituaries , a fitting tribute to an unassuming woman from Lismore who left formal education at fifteen .
In praise of hydrangeas in July 2022
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 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 although I knew she was on a UN danger money daily rate I did not realise the risk however over dinner last week with my son , Kevin , 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 near Mariopol in a No Mans Land area … a tense situation inside the vehicle as they were gathering information on shell craters and the various militia in a no man’s land area between Russian and Ukrainian lines and it was about to get even more tense .
Their vehicle was prevented crossing back into Ukrainian territory at a 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 huge calibre mounted 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 that 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 .
We had drought conditions in Ireland for two weeks in August with once in fifty years temperatures of 30 degrees daily and while everybody flocked to the beaches to cool down , our poor gardens suffered especially new plants and those in pots . It made me realise that those plants we stick in pots which when you think about it is artificial and not something nature does and those poor plants are really our prisoners , totally dependant on us … we had an emergency system during the drought where we watered the plants both in pots and in the ground around the immediate front and back garden every morning for over an hour especially those shrubs planted in the Spring as for their first year these plants only have the root ball they are grown in for sustenance as their roots haven’t had a chance to spread out and anchor into the soil … however a bucket of water over a young drooping and wilting hydrangea will have a dramatic effect and help bring the shrub back from the dead .
The Purple Loosestrife have had a dramatic growth throughout all our water areas this year and the plant has been grown in wetland areas for thousands of years and was a favourite plant of the Celts who used it for medicinal purposes as ground down it relieves headaches hence the name LOOSE STRIFE however if you were a woman in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and knew and used plants like loosestrife for healing purposes you could be accused of witch craft and burnt at the stake by vengeful church authorities .
Nature has brought it in to our garden and over the years it has colonised the stream and throughout the Water Garden by self seeding . The plant after flowering retains a stiff architectural structure and I only cut it down in areas if it is impacting on it’s neighbours , we love it and I would class it along with wild astilbe as one of the best wild self seeds … I have bought loosestrife , lysemachia vulgaris , as a commercial plant but it has never flowered like the wild version .
Why are you buying that was Snezana’s query at the Clonmel Garden Centre recently as she saw I had added three stachy’s byzantium to our trolley … stachys comes from Armenia and Iran and is commonly known as Lamb’s Ears is a loved and old favourite cottage garden perennial which given the right conditions will spread out as a terrific ground cover plant which keeps it’s leaves all year round . I understand why some would question stachys because most people leave it flower and it has a nice yellow flower bract but the problem is that after flowering the stachys becomes straggly and awful whereas if you grow it purely for ground cover and keep the flowers clipped then there is none nicer than stachys . These three specimens are for the water garden area where I have unexpectantly found that stachys does really well in the heavy clayey soil although I do back fill each planting hole with a bucket of compost to get it established .
Visit to Cashel Palace Hotel .
Originally built in 1732 as the Bishop of Cashel’s Palace on the slopes leading up to the Rock of Cashel which was the seat of the Kings of Munster since the 10th century , donated to the church in 1101 AD and the famous Cathedral and St. Cormac’s Chapel were built in 1230 AD . There was and still is a gate leading from the Bishop’s Palace garden directly to the Rock and at all times in the garden the Rock of Cashel is visible .
From the entrance with it’s beautiful terrazzo type paving ,which goes on paths all around the garden ,to the fabulous interior no expense has been spared and the overall effect is amazing , a house fit for a King not just a Bishop !
The former Cashel Palace Hotel was bought by the Magnier Family in 2015 who gutted and restored it to it’s current glory , no money was spared on the fabulous restoration down to the last detail . I had heard that the gardens had been given a total makeover by a leading UK garden design firm so we headed over for afternoon tea in early August and a wander around both the hotel and the gardens .
The restored Palace only opened as the Cashel Palace Hotel in March this year after a five year make over from top to bottom and we were given a guided tour of the interior by Sally , the Hotel Concierge , who filled us in on all the details… we had been there once before about twenty years ago when it was dark and quite run down and the contrast now is like night and day .
Sad to say for me the garden was disappointing and it appears like the planting in the borders was just thrown together in a rush for instant impact with far too many hydrangeas of the in vogue Annabelle and limelight varieties and the rest is just filler type alchemis mollis and geraniums for ground cover … nothing special . However this is just the first year and both Brexit and Covid have meant that a lot of specialist plants are just not available in the required quantities as a garden this size would require and I am sure that seeing the quality the owners have demanded for the interior of the hotel that over the next few years the garden will match that high standard also but for now the verdict for the grounds of the Cashel Palace has to be a “ could do better ”.
Olive Oil in Croatia September 2022
I love the olive trees for their look and while I also love the oil they produce , the crop for me is secondary to the overall effect of having olive trees in the garden at Gornja Podgora but for the practical local people ( and for Snezana ) this is heresy as the olive trees are there purely for economic reasons . I mention this as I know that to maximise the crop we need to cut back the trees hard and reduce the branches drastically which means that not only will there be hardly any fruit for two to three years but the olive trees will look like stick insects during that time … Snezana of course is itching to be let loose with a chain saw so a compromise is agreed where we will make a small cut back every year and even that hurts me and while discussing this with a local friend he said “What you need is a man with a cold heart ” !
Last year I wrote about our own small olive harvest where we pick 150 kilos of olives and that this produces 20 litres of oil of which we are very proud and truth be told it costs more to harvest the oil then if we went out and bought twenty litres ! But it is our olive oil where the trees and all the picking is treated with love so we consider it a bargain and I did touch on in that article but not fully explore the dark side of olive oil production even in our local village .
Olive oil is the second largest natural product in the world after honey that is faked with additives where cheap oil and even oil substitutes are added to bulk up the product and local people tell me that the faked /bad olive oil is sold on market stalls or beside the road for the tourists while they themselves will only use their own oil or olive oil that has been bought from a person they know does not mess with the process . Italian olive oil is notorious for fake oil that they import cheaply from the likes of Algeria , Tunisia and other low cost countries in the Mediterranean basin where standards are not so high and which they use to bulk up Italian branded olive oil … it is estimated that up to 70% of Italian olive oil being sold is fake .
Sad news I agree but big business and human greed has corrupted the most beautiful and healthy product you can eat which is why when I look at our little production I can say hand on heart that Eamonn & Snezana Extra Virgin Olive Oil is exactly what it says on the label !
I worked for two years from 1994 in Macedonia after the break up of the Former Yugoslavia and it has always remained my favourite country in the Balkans even after spending over twenty years living and working in Bosnia and Croatia which are also beautiful especially along the Adriatic coast . Almost everyone you speak to from the Yugoslav days has a soft spot for Macedonia which unlike most of the other five states never threatened or fought against anyone and it remained strictly neutral throughout the Yugoslav wars of 1991 to 1995 . What makes Macedonia such a lovely place is the people and the culture not to mention their avjar and red peppers and as for their mountains and lakes … well the Sharplanina and Ohrid lakes are breath taking ! I use to walk in the Sharplanina mountains most weekends with the Skopje Treking Club and was amazed at how well versed the local walkers were with every herb and wild flower we would come across on our walks to stay in the chain of mountain huts that run the length of the mountains from Skopje all the way down to Pelister Mountain outside Bitola … each of them would come back from the weekend with ruck sacks stuffed with herbs , wild garlic and onions , mushrooms … if it was edible or could be used in their home made rakia it was collected .
Since that time I haven’t seen many local people out foraging but in Bosnia of course this was because large tracts are still heavily mined ( an estimated 4.5 million mines still in the ground ) and the modern Croatians are just too cool to be seen foraging which is why I was surprised and delighted to see last week that one woman from our village in Gornja Podgora still continues the tradition . I met Lovrinka , who is 87 , coming back from a four Km.walk across the mountain behind her house at Sv. Rokko with two bulging sacks of herbs and wild flowers and she explained that she will harvest the flower seeds such as wild lavender , fennel and helichrysum for planting in her own garden and flavour home made rakia with the herbs … great to see the foraging tradition is alive and well still !
Visit to Hvar Island , Croatia , October 2022
While in Croatia in September we visited the island of Hvar which has been a favourite of ours for over twenty five years and while there we always try to visit another small island St. Clement a few miles out in the bay from Hvar Town where the Menenghello family originally from Milan have since 1906 owned and developed a large 50 acre site of scrub land into a fabulous garden where they grow a range of exotic plants such as the Moroccan yucca together with local indigenous plants such as aguave and prickly pear cactus . The Menenghellos have always been a family of artists and over the years various family members have added unusual pieces of sculpture and iron works throughout the garden that greatly contribute to the feeling of eccentricity as you walk around and I find myself smiling every time I visit !
Hvar has been a favourite of ours since our first visit in 1996 and we have visited most years since then .
This has been my favourite spot for a photo during our visits .
Thatching restoration in Croatia October 2022
The EU funds many worthy diverse projects which are generally dogged by criminality and corruption in Southern Italy and the Eastern European States but when they work and are not abused they quietly help to revive interest in activities that have fallen off the radar in modern times such as dry stone walling and thatching which was why I recently found myself in Croatia invited to a disused village long fallen into ruins on Biokovo mountain in October but which now with EU funds is being brought back to life . Local EU coordinators have been able to employ stone masons and thatchers , walls are being rebuilt , roofs are being thatched which for over sixty years have been open to the elements but more importantly eco activists and ethno enthusiasts are being supported financially to revive the lost traditions in this digital age and work shops and conferences are being organised across the EU where the rural life still continues such as dry stone walling in Croatia ,Romania, Ireland and Greece .
I lived for many years in Co. Wexford during my career with the Revenue Commissioners where a village near me , Kilmore Quay , has a huge tradition of thatched houses and my grand father on my Mother’s side , Jeremiah O’Keefe , was a thatcher … so it was a nice experience to see thatching being revived in Croatia . Back in the 1980’s while out cycling near Lady’s Island in Co. Wexford I stopped to watch an old man high up on a roof thatching and stopping to watch I remarked to him that all the old thatched cottages had tiny windows … he came down the ladder to talk to me and when I said that the people inside the house could barely see the lovely lake in front of the house he said “ the weather and the wind is horrible here and the rule is if you want to look at the view step outside ” !!
The Olive Oil Harvest in October 2022
The summer was harsh in Dalmatia and unless there are underground springs to tap in to which we don’t have the olive yield was always going to be low this year and we could see from early September that our olives were small … too small really and not economical to pick , more like small berries but for us the romance of your own olive oil is the thing so we went ahead and reserved our slot with the local Olive Mill in Podgora .
We started picking the olives at 8 am on the Sat morning 15th October and finished at 4 pm on Sunday when the olives went to the local Olive Oil Mill in Podgora for our booked processing time . As I have said the olives were small this year due to the ninety days continuous drought in the summer more like berries rather than the usual fat olives but we managed 112 kgs which produced 15 litres of olive oil .
Looking back on our little harvest it was worth it but there is no doubt olive picking is a slog , real back breaking stuff and this year we were lucky to have Vera , Snezana’s Mum , adding a third pair of hands to the collection … seeing her at 82 years of age climbing fifteen feet up into an olive tree without a ladder is an experience !
The Olive Mill in Podgora opened for the first day of the 2022 season on October 16th this year and we were booked in for late afternoon with our precious little consignment , took our place in line and as usual were treated with the same respect as the big local producers who had collected olives from over 300 trees .
Podgora Olive Oil Mill 16th October 2022
The first oil from our 2022 olives appears !
After the olives are processed when the first olive oil pours out into your container it makes it all worth while and so we will forget the pain of it until next year again !
We sampled a bowl the next morning , delicious with a real kick at the back of the throat and it is as if we knew each individual olive !
We had a lot of fruit in fact twice as much as normal years but much smaller olives and with only half the volume of oil so it was back breaking stuff collecting it but the Olive Mill tested it and said it was of the highest quality.
My Gardening Month November 2022 … Good Morning Vietnam !
Gunnera would be my favourite architectural plant and it makes a huge statement in the garden but it needs space and water and when I say water I mean that it needs water close by but gunnera will not thrive if it’s roots are in water logged or permanently wet soil. A lot of people don’t like gunnera and find it’s sheer size intimidating and while it will eventually grow to perhaps ten feet high in the right site ,it has two major disadvantages in that it dies back badly and messily and it leaves a large hole in your planting scheme for the winter .
I cut the gunnera leaves down completely in early November before the first frosts and then I fold the leaves in on themselves to form a nice box over the crowns and this serves two purposes in that it looks good ( well a bit better than the heap of blackened leaves !) and it protects the crown of the plant until next season in April .
I love when the first new shoots of gunnera peep through the blackened leaves in late March and it is for me the first real signs of spring and the new season .
When I first started gardening in 1976 my bible was Christopher Llyod’s book The Well Tempered Garden and so it remains to this day along with Robin Lane – Fox’s book Better Gardening which came out in 1986 … two oldies I know but neither has been surpassed to this day by the TV gardening brigade who bring out a book a year in time for the Xmas market and which are forgotten by Easter .
Robin Lane Fox described Mahonia as an all rounder first introduced to the UK in the late 18th century from the Far East when it cost 21 guineas a plant , a years wages at that time for a working man .
Mahonia is a quiet favourite of mine , not a shouty front of border shrub nor would it feature in the top ten of shrubs for the garden but it is a sly charmer that does best in a shady spot in woodland conditions where it adds great structure and leaf all year round and when it blooms from late October on it lights up the area .
November 2022 Trip to Vietnam & Cambodia
I grew up in the 1960’s with Vietnam part of the sound track of my teenage years from the outbreak of the Vietnam War in 1964 and it is only in the last twenty years that the country has opened up for tourism . Until now I had never travelled there nor indeed felt the need to but all this changed in early November when we spent almost three weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia , a fabulous trip where we travelled south from Hanoi to Saigon and the Mekong Delta visiting and staying also in Halong Bay , Hoi An and the Imperial City of Hue along the South China Sea .
Until now India was considered our trip of a lifetime and while it was marvellous there were elements of India that were a bit intimidating such as the in your face multiplicity of Hindu deities and temples , the overwhelming numbers of people in every public place , the predatory attitude of large groups of men towards young women and above all the sheer jaw dropping level of poverty among the poorer people who often lived on the side of the street… none of that is evident in Vietnam or Cambodia and while the people are definitely poor I feel as Buddhist countries there is a huge difference in attitude and outlook and they have a friendliness that is very welcoming …we loved it unashamedly .
Hanoi in the north to my surprise I liked better than Saigon as with it’s narrow streets it is more intimate whereas Saigon designed by the French has huge Champs Elysee style boulevards … getting across the street on foot in Hanoi through the horde of scooters none of whom regard any zebra crossings as mandatory is bad enough and you should try getting across the boulevard size streets in Saigon almost 150 metres wide … there is a trick to getting through the scooters without being knocked down but you have to adopt a zen like approach where you stroll across , important not to rush or dash across, and let the scooters swarm around you like water… takes confidence though but by the end we had mastered it !
The scooter is the vehicle of choice in Vietnam and they are such tiny people that it was nothing to see an entire family of four and in one case five including a baby sitting on one and the scooter is routinely used for transporting everything from sacks of cement to live animals and bales of clothing piled up high behind the driver .
As the Vietnamese appear tiny to us we westerners must look huge to them as one day I was buying some T shirts in a market , the iconic one with Good Morning Vietnam written across the front , the lady trying to convince me that it would fit assured me without a hint of irony , quite serious she was , the witch … “ it is hippo size so it will fit you ” !
Vietnamese food is rightly famous and it is everywhere on the streets , along the side of the road where the cook sets up her woks and burners and cooks with ingredients that were picked that morning with wall to wall noodles and pork seems to be the meat most used . It is impossible to have a bad meal in Vietnam as unlike other destinations this is not laid on for the tourists , this is for themselves and they sit out at meal times and throughout the day on these tiny plastic chairs and tables or as Anthony Bourdain says in his TV programme on street food in South East Asia “ Got the small plastic table .. check … got the small plastic chairs … check .. got the scooters .. check … this is Hanoi !
The Vietnamese and strangely enough the tourists also are all into their own food and I didn’t see a MacDonalds or Burger King in either Hanoi or Saigon , I am sure they exist but down some side street and not in your face like in most cities world wide which is a tribute in itself to the lure of their own street food which is also served fast but cooked on the go on a wok and not some indeterminate meat pattie cooked and deep frozen probably in Minnesota .
My favourite food is a sandwich so naturally I felt right at home with the Vietnamese sandwich , their famous Ba Minh which is a combination of the french influence of a toasted baquette but one which is lighter and made with rice flour to be crispier then layered with pate of your choice , pork strips , coriander and whatever pickled vegetables you like … delicious !
Anthony Bourdain, the writer and chef , claimed on his famous Vietnamese food segment that you got the BEST Ba Mhin sandwich in a small Vietnamese town , Hoi An , in a restaurant called Banh Mi Phuong and by luck we find ourselves in Hoi An outside the very same ! Apparently they are so jealous of their now world famous Ba Mihn recipe that they only employ family members in the restaurant which is round the clock busy … without doubt my BEST SANDWICH EVER !!
I leave the last word on the sandwich to the late great Anthony who described the famous Ba Minh as “a symphony in a sandwich ” .
Poor Vietnam got hammered by the US with the carpet bombing and Agent Orange being sprayed indiscriminately on millions of acres of trees and it really was an unjust war , all in the Cold War cause of stemming the flow of communism . In reality the Vietnam War was a war for independence , the unification of a country which after a hundred years struggle against the French should have been an unstoppable force but such is the hypocrisy of the West that the UN under US pressure was prevailed upon to divide Vietnam into North and South in 1954 .
For all their suffering at the hands of both France and the US the people of Vietnam are remarkably forgiving and an article about Vietnam in the UK Telegraph last week stated “ the Vietnamese don’t want to be weighed down by history , they are optimistic they want to look to the future not the past ” … we could learn from that attitude here , one hundred years ago our Irish Civil War started in December 1922 , lasted eight months and we are still reliving it .
A friend of mine from High School days , Joe Toner , a US citizen , was a medic in the US Army and died in a military plane crash in Da Nang in 1967 so as we landed in Da Nang Joe was in my thoughts as he had been a few years ago in June 2010 when Catherine Ryan , another school friend of Joe’s , contacted me out of the blue after 40 years to send our own little personal tribute to Joe , a small flower arrangement , floating down the Suir in Clonmel where we all three had often walked . RIP Joe and sadly RIP Catherine , who passed away just three weeks later .
We travelled all the way down Vietnam from Halong Bay in the North to the Mekong Delta in the south , visited silk worm farms , completed cookery programmes on a farm surrounded by paddy fields , visited pearl farms , got up close and personal with water buffalos in the South China Sea and pythons in the Mekong Delta , fulfilled a personal ambition to crawl along one of the Vietcong tunnels of Cu Chi and got to see the iconic temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia .
Don’t try this at home !
Cookery class in Vietnamese cooking , Hoi An
South China Sea , Hoi An
I remember the first time in 1975 just as the war ended the US Army revealed details of the secret war that the Vietcong had waged underground where ten years before the US invaded in anticipation of the war coming they had built an elaborate system of tunnels underground near Saigon and where an entire army could hide safe from bombing and army patrols . This huge underground system even housed hospitals , canteens , administration offices and sleeping quarters right under the feet of the US Army and from where the Vietcong could pop up and ambush patrols and then vanish just as quick .
These tunnels were constructed with traps , hidden sharp stakes in pits that an intruder who didn’t know the way could fall into along with nests of snakes … it would take a brave man to go down these tunnels and bring the fight to the enemy but the US recruited a special unit of small sized men who actually went down after the Vietcong and they called themselves tunnel rats … brave men .
The tourist nowadays can go down some of these tunnels to experience what these soldiers went through and even though I was older than the permitted age the guide let me down at my own risk … I was too tall to walk upright and too stiff to wriggle along on my haunches so I crawled along a section about forty metres long , thirty feet down in a tunnel a metre high and in total darkness , hoping I was going in the right direction , I took of course a wrong turn , couldn’t turn around and then a few metres further along I heard a voice shouting over here … great relief when I saw daylight again !
You or at least I go to Vietnam for the history , the unique landscape but you go back for the people who are just wonderful .
The smiling people of Vietnam
I must confess that although interested in history and antiquity I have never had a feel for the Kymer civilisation of Angkor Wat … still haven’t … which in a way was a blessing as I walked through the ruins of Angkor Wat as it allowed me to just enjoy the beautiful stone work and the awesome carved wall panels and not get bogged down in detail of which king built which as it would have in Greece or Egypt .
The views at sunrise and sunset at Angkor Wat are a tik tok favourite and a must see if in South East Asia and on our last day I made it up before closing time to the top of the main temple , about 30 metres of almost perpendicular stone steps … and down again … dangerous dangerous but it felt great afterwards .
I asked an Indian , a Hindu , who was visiting with his Mother and who had just also made it back down the steps and who was equally slumped on a bench heart in the mouth recovering like me why it was designed and built to be so difficult and he said “ in our tradition and belief the tower at the top is the home of the gods and represents heaven and it IS difficult to reach heaven ” … his Mother who was about 80 said that she had wanted to climb to the top but that her son would only allow her to climb the first four steps and I said there was no need for to risk life and limb as she was his mother and that all mothers in my view were guaranteed heaven anyway … she smiled and said tell that to him …loudly !
December 2022 I wrote about Hellebores and colour in the Winter Garden
Another favourite winter plant is the hellebore , a perennial that comes into flower in early December and blooms away until April … highly sought after with Hellebore Societies throughout the world for enthusiasts and the plant has been hybridised to death with the huge public clamour for flowers which are available in all the colours of the rainbow such is the demand and popularity and some gardeners even strip off all the leaves just to show off the flowers better .
Hundreds of varieties but personally I grow just one Hellebore , the common variety corsicus which I grow purely for it’s cream leaf colour and architectural shape and the flower is not in your face but a lovely soft understated cream … don’t bother with the exotic flowered hellebores as although the flowers are pretty the leaf colour is drab.
An easy to please plant , hellebore likes shade but no wet ground please , self seeds into gravel easily and is great in pots and while it can get leggy you can deal with this after flowering by just cutting it to the ground and it grows back as good as new .
Colour in the garden in Winter … yes it is possible !
Silver Birch is THE best single tree or shrub to import some colour into the winter garden , multi stemmed or single stemmed specimens will light up the garden and it is the first tree I go for in any planting schemes as it looks good all year round but of course with it’s white bark it comes into it’s own at this time of year . Generally I am not a fan of variegated shrubs but make an exception for eleagnus and the varieties gilt edged , limelight and gold star are superb , a bit slow to grow but worth the wait . Another good tree for winter colour is the copper beech which although really brilliant for colour in Spring through to Autumn but they retain their faded leaves through the winter and look great then also .
Golden willow and the red dogwoods are also beautiful in winter and grow well in damp locations .
You can import winter colour with pots , the bigger the better and I tend towards blue which stands out well throughout the garden and red and green pots also provide focal points of colour when you need it most .
Gardeners in Ireland and the UK tend to be very traditional when it comes to wooden garden furniture which is always brown however here at Old Spa Road Snezana has introduced blue , Majorelle blue to be precise from the famous 1920’s Majorelle Garden in Marakech , so ALL our wooden furniture has been painted blue for the past ten years and of course this also is a great way to introduce colour to the winter garden .
Murder in the Garden , December 2022
I start loading the bird feeders in late November after the leaves have fallen and it takes the local birds a few days to realise and from then until end of March there is frantic activity throughout daylight hours .
The feeders are only a few metres from my office desk so I get to view them on a regular basis while the blue tits and sparrows have their little tiffs over who gets to eat at which feeder however last week for the first time in my life I saw a small hawk swoop in and take a blue tit in flight … brutal and so quick , blink fast and I’d have missed it as the hawk swung into the feeder and took a small blue tit in mid flight , one smooth movement , no fuss no squawks and it was gone with the blue tit in it’s mouth, not even a few feathers left fluttering ….. the other birds scattered of course but in a minute or two were back feeding as if nothing had happened , the beauty and cruelty of nature revealed in a nano second .
It took a few weeks to recover from our November trip to Vietnam both the hectic daily schedule and the flights back via Dubai with long 12 hour delays in Bankok but it was a great trip and the memories will outlive the tiredness !
Personal highlights for me and ones I had been looking forward to for years were the visit to the Imperial City of Hue built over the Perfumed River , the palace of the former Emperor’s of Vietnam and to get to see the Tomb of the last Emperor was a real thrill , a curiously muted simple low key structure in the inner palace in total contrast to the flamboyancy of the rest of the buildings in the outer court.
I was fascinated with Hue since watching on TV the Tet Offensive of 1969 against the Citadel at Hue during the Vietnam War , that almost overwhelmed the US Army when thousands of Vietcong soldiers died in almost suicidal attacks during the Chinese New Year .
I hadn’t expected the wealth that is obvious in Saigon , a complete contrast to the new capital city of Hanoi which is pretty decrepit and poor looking in keeping with what is officially a communist socialist country … less street cooking if any also in Saigon and you wonder who won the war , Hanoi or Saigon ?!
By the end of our trip to Cambodia Snezana was all templed out and in need of a break which is why I hit out on my own to reach the highest temple , the House of the Gods , at Angkor Wat before it closed at sunset and just made it thanks to a nice guard who had closed the gate but took pity on me as I ran up and allowed me in as the last visitor of the day !
How the other half lives in a fishing village on the South China Sea
We stopped at this fishing village a few miles from Da Nang which is famous for it’s oysters and these guys earn their money , working in wet damp and humid conditions out in the open cleaning the oysters before bagging them up for sale at the markets where they get only the equivalent of five dollars for a full sack of oysters .
The Golden Bridge in Da Nang
The Golden Bridge in Da Nang is a curious place to visit and I added it on a spur of the moment decision while in Da Nang as Lonely Planet said it was a must see . I had never heard of it but I trust Lonely Planet and so off we went on an afternoon visit from Hoi An and my advice never trust Lonely Planet again ! A huge part of pre Covid tourism for Vietnam has been from China with a lot also arriving from South Korea ,Malaysia and India and the Golden Bridge and the architecture around it is pure Disneyland meets Versailles which is exactly what the Chinese want as in lets have Versailles in Vietnam and skip going to Europe to see the real thing .
The Golden Bridge in itself is interesting as you can see from the photographs with giant stone hands holding up a golden pedestrian bridge and built in 2018 it has won several major international architectural awards already however the Versailles thing built further up the mountain is awful makey uppy fake chateau land , in fact there was a sign advertising a copy of the Chateau of Amboise which is currently being replicated … toe curdlingly awful s..t but the Asian tourists love it .
New Year’s resolutions … Don’t be too hard on yourself if you are not the best , most interested gardener in the world as even the professional gardeners have their off days as Fionnula Fallon wrote recently in her gardening column in The Irish Times .
“As an experienced, professional gardener, you’re not supposed to make mistakes. But of course I still do.
All the horticultural booby traps, temptations and enticements that once snared me in their crosshairs as a rookie gardener, are the very same ones that can still catch me out to this day.
So, like most other gardeners, I still occasionally buy beautiful plants that I really have no room for, which then sit forlornly in their pots waiting to be given a permanent berth.
Or, I occasionally buy plants that I know in my heart of hearts need a different kind of soil, or a warmer, more sheltered garden than I can provide, condemning them to struggle. I’m also, despite knowing better, still guilty of occasionally planting things too closely together, or of wilfully choosing to ignore the fact that the rampant growth of one species might very quickly overcome another one less vigorous.”
The Garden in the last days of 2022