December has been a brutal month on the garden with frost and freezing temperatures down to minus 5 deg each day for three weeks , going down the garden was not pleasant seeing the plants frozen solid . But plants know how to respond , not the tender ones as they just die , but the perennial plants droop their leaves and play dead but when the weather changes it is amazing to see how they bounce back and I was particularly impressed with the bergenia and the euphorbia .
Euphorbia wulfeni is my favourite perennial which is a plant but one that looks like a small shrub , they self seed everywhere there is dry gravelly conditions and I am forever potting up the seedlings , growing them on and planting throughout the garden and apart from the hostas , it is the plant visitors to the garden most ask about . From it’s flowering in late March it dominates the garden through to June and then the amazing evergreen foliage is there all year round .
People assume it is a difficult plant to grow but not a bit of it and it will self seed in cracks in concrete and tiles , the poorer the soil the better the euphorbia likes it BUT and here’s the thing , euphorbia can be difficult to keep alive beyond two years . The secret is to know when to prune and cut it back and this has to be done in June/ July after flowering , just when it looks really strong and you need to be ruthless cutting out at the base all old stems and be careful to wear gloves as the cut stems release a milky substance which is acidy and will burn if it gets into cuts or around the eyes … you will get to know with a bit of experience which stems to cut back hard and these are the leggy ones that have got a bit woody and are darker than the fresh stems .
Cutting euphorbia in the summer months up to end of August will mean you will have good regrowth and a nice strong plant by the end of October all set for the next Spring when the flowering yellow flower bracts will take your breath away .
If you miss the summer chop or are too timid to have a real go then December / January is a good time to cut back euphorbia as there is a half way point visible between last years top growth and the new emerging stems which are about six inches high … of course this is late to be cutting back and you won’t have flowers next Spring but you will save the plant and will have a really strong euphorbia by the end of next year .
This photo shows a point which is crucial with growing euphorbias and with keeping them growing healthily for many years and for example in this plant if I cut off at the base all of the tall stems then the new stems will grow freely and quite possibly will even flower in a few months time … if I had cut these old stems down last June they would definitely have been ready to flower next Spring but with so many euphorbias to get around I just got a bit behind with the hard pruning and missed a few … but all is not lost and the plant will thrive again .
A few days after Christmas I noticed that the euphorbias in the front garden had got a bit leggy so I cut them back hard as can be seen in the next photo . Which begs the question was late December the best time to prune and my answer to that old perennial is if you are in the mood and have the secateurs close by well anytime is a good time to prune !
We have a wide path down beside the house which I have found to be perfect for growing euphorbias , west facing and in shade most of the morning , poor inch deep gravel soil and over the past few years I have steadily planted both sides up with self seeded euphorbias with the result that it has created a fabulous border over thirty metres long of mature euphorbias on both sides … I never set out to do this it just evolved as I found that all sorts of self seeders liked the conditions and in among the euphorbias and at their feet there are wall flowers , wild cow slips , bergenias , lemon balm and alchemis mollis … all trouble free plants that do their own thing and need no maintenance throughout the year .
However to maintain the euphorbias there is quite a bit of looking after which begins when the flowering period ends in late June and for a steady four weeks I cut back wheel barrow loads of euphorbia stems in a very methodical way and at that point in mid July the euphorbias look a bit rough and uneven after the heavy pruning for about six weeks and then the new growth kicks in and the border looks great again and all the effort is worth it .
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 .
The Garden at Old Spa Road in late December
Naturally the garden gets a bit neglected in the lead up to Christmas and this year the frosty spell didn’t exactly entice and before that the heavy rains so apart from the odd walk around just to check on how the plants were coping that was about it and I also have to admit that the older I get the harder it is to kick start myself to get out there in bad weather !
However once out in the days after Christmas with the leaf blower I could see the jobs that needed doing and the old adrenalin kicked in again . From now until the end of January is the perfect time to get in among the shrubs and trees and root out perennial weeds such as docks and creeping buttercup but also the bare stems expose the evergreen brambles and it is a great opportunity to tackle them too getting all or as much of the roots as possible .
The Birds are back in Town
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 where I met these two young monks .
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 , 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 .
Best memory of Vietnam ? The friendly people .
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.”
As we are approaching the first day of a new year my mind goes back to previous New Years spent away from Ireland , from home and family , back to the first few days of 1996 and a new EU appointment in Montenegro as an Observer on the Montenegro border with Bosnia during the war .
Diary 6th January 1996 , Niksic, Montenegro
My first feelings are what have I left myself in for ?! Nicsic sounds like a BAD town and this is before you hear all the firing of AK47’s, pistols, shotguns etc. as the locals celebrate Orthodox Christmas and New Year. Apparently two occupations which are highly respected around these parts are smuggling and being a warrior — and the two fit like a glove here which can make it dangerous for Customs Officers ! Veteran staff here are telling me all sorts of horror stories which I never heard in Belgrade, shots being fired at the caravan during the night ( entire wall raked by automatic fire ), threatened with pistols by drunken Police ( observer had a gun held to his head but as it was badly cocked, the pistol did not go off ). As I write it is Orthodox Serb Christmas night, and the guns are constantly firing outside, perhaps I am being like a nervous American !
The flight from Belgrade airport to Montenegro was unusual – it was snowing and my nervousness at the conditions was not helped by the fact that looking out before take off I saw four guys walking up and down each wing sweeping the snow off with brushes – the plane was full , all seats taken when suddenly the doors opened and a stream of farmers both men and women struggled in clutching bags of cabbages, long sausages , huge tins of feta , the usual Balkan domestic products while some in addition to that were balancing chicken cages ( full of squaking chickens ) on their shoulders – they took all the standing room down the centre aisle hanging on to straps like on a bus — bad enough to die in a plane crash with all these mad Slav fuckers but with chicken shit all over my shoulders – beam me up Scottie time ! The plane took an age on the take off but finally made it off the tarmac where immediately all the airport lights went out just like a sudden power cut – apparently sanctions ensured that the power could only be kept on for limited periods – no great consolation to me the only European on the flight and a Sanctions Officer as well – if we survived a crash landing in the wilds of Montenegro I can imagine who would be eaten first .
The plane circled for a long time over Tivat until the lights down below went on and we swooped suddenly and yes as soon as we landed all the lights went out and everybody else on the plane was equipped for this and produced torches and we stumbled off to be surrounded by these great big hairy police guys with macho mustaches – we had to carry the luggage off ourselves and I found myself in this long unlit customs hall at 1 am no clue what to do except that I was supposed to be met by a driver – among all the hairy types I saw one with a stick with a name in cyrllic on it – I made up my mind there and then whose ever name was on that stick , OSCE, UN – he was my driver and he was !
We arrived outside Onogast Hotel in Niksic at around 3 am – no lights on of course , the usual power cuts and it took an age and lots of kicking at the door accompanied by loud swearing in Serbian for the driver who didn’t have a word of English to alert the night clerk – who promptly lost interest in me when I didn’t take up his offer to change money . Eventually after a lot of swearing , this time from me , I was assigned what was euphemistically referred to as a room and I staggered in the dark up four flights of stairs with my ten bags , backed into the room which from what I could see was about the size of the single bed — then the shooting and rocket launchers outside the window began – Serb Christmas – I sat on the edge of the bed thinking it cannot get any worse than this and asking myself in a whining way what the fuck are you doing here when the bed collapsed — I made an executive decision , wrapped my overcoat tightly around me , pulled what blankets were there over my head and rolled into the bed half of which was sticking up in the air and thought FUCK IT !
The Hotel, which I had been warned about, is called ONOGOST but is referred to by all the Mission as Hotel Holocaust ! The rooms are tiny, the toilet doesn’t flush properly, there is no hot water, most of the light fittings don’t work, and the electricity cuts out now and again, and before I forget — the food is awful … half board is 42 Dm. and full board is 43 Dm. so that gives you an idea of what dinner is like … other than that it is not too bad , welcome to 1996 !
Border patrol on the Kosovo border in Former Yugoslavia December 1995
Gardening in December and January
It can be difficult to motivate to get yourself out in the garden in these months and Diarmuid Gavin in his just released book , Gardening together , nails it by writing “ January is a shit show ” !
However set yourself easy tasks that take perhaps half an hour and you will maintain contact with the garden but also when you are out there you will find other things to do either that day or the next so you now have targets … anything that gets you out !
We start each morning here , all year round , with an outdoor shower in the Back Garden , sets you up for the day … once you get feeling back into the arms and legs !
I am ending the last Blog of 1922 by wishing a Happy New Year and Sretna Nova Godina to all !