This month for the first time with the Covid vaccination program kicking up a gear it is beginning to seem that normal life is within our reach again where we can look forward to getting on with our lives and not live in fear of catching the virus every time we step outside our little bubbles . In April I got both doses of the Pfizer vaccine and it was a tremendous feeling of security and relief not to be thinking that everyone I met outside and every surface touched could be the launch pad for the disease .
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 .
The plants we all love never seem to be invasive and I know the old saying … if life gives you lemons make lemonade … but in some cases it can be difficult to get a favourite to grow at all even though you try to give it the conditions it likes . I am not at all bothered to hear a plant described as invasive as we have the space here to let most plants romp away but I draw the line at two plants that I won’t grow or propagate , one being Japanese knotweed but then it won’t grow in wet conditions which is what we mostly have here and the other is a real terror in water , parrot feather which I introduced here about ten years ago in the Lower Swamp area and which I have been trying to kill ever since … it still clings to life here and every few month I have to rake out barrow loads of the stuff and I also spray round up on it each spring … lovely innocuous looking thing with gorgeous fern like green leaves but it will cover every inch of a natural pond with a density you can almost walk on … horrible .
Bamboo you either love or hate and most people are afraid to introduce them to their gardens as they have had such a bad press in recent years . Read the lable carefully when buying and if it says “ needs to be curtailed ” or“rampant growth ” then I would avoid it and the safer option is to go for a bamboo that says clump forming then it should be OK . We have one bamboo given to us by a gardener when I admired it in their garden and it has shot around the areas I planted it in which was a space that needed filling and we are now at the stage of cutting it back hard and it has become a borderline pest but then there are several murilea bamboo that has behaved itself as well as several golden varieties that are just beautiful . Bamboo is a terrific addition to a garden , evergreen and with lovely movement in the slightest of winds although as a result of this one rogue specimen Snezana HATES all bamboo and I have had to put an absolute ban on her going anywhere near our bamboo unless by mutual agreement !
Excerpts from an electronic diary which I wrote during my service in the Balkans with the EU 1994 to 2006
Montenegro Diary 8th February 1996
I was paired up to-day with an American Special Forces soldier for a three day posting to the Vellusi border check point with Bosnia , Jack Bramak, whose Grand parents came from Bohemia in 1900.
Jack is a heavy user of pain killers as he was a specialist in jumping out of planes at extremely low altitudes when in the military. Jack is famous in the mission for falling in love with a cow ( a real one that moos ) up at Scepan Polje – his Danish colleague woke up to find George pointing at a cow that was looking in the window of the caravan and Jack asking “ isen’t she lovely “ – discretion being the better part of valour and not knowing if Jack was only joking the colleague tentativly agreed that as cows went yes she was quite attractive in a cowish type of way — at which point Jack announced that they ( as in the cow and I ) are engaged – the colleague wisely refrained from comment but when Jack left the container to give the cow a kiss the colleague wisely leapt up and locked Jack out – this didn’t bother Jack as he had rather a lot to tell the cow of their future life together whereupon he stripped off all of his clothes – in the snow and February minus 15 degrees in the Montenegro mountains cold – and stood bollock naked in the middle of the road blocking an international crossing point – facing towards Niksic but crouched down with his head between his legs looking out into Bosnia – even the tough Serb border police were fairly thrown by this and of course the loud sobbing coming from within the locked ICFY container from the Danish colleague added a certain je ne sais quoi to the mix . Jack crouched like that for two hours , blocked the entire border – sight seeing Serbs were driving out from Niksic to take photos and a mad almost carnival athmosphere developed with Jack’s hairy arse the main focus – it took the mission almost three hours to get a car to the border post and I am told that the look on their faces as they first saw Jack was a sight – what to do and how to stroll over nonchalantly to the international observer through the cheering Serbs as if this was nothing out of the ordinary – they got him into the car eventually after he was allowed to say a last goodbye to the by now famous cow – his colleague came very reluctantly out of the container and Jack arrived back at the Mission HQ where he was sedated and slept for almost 48 hours .
We all thought Jack would be shipped home but amazingly the US Team decided he had had only a minor breakdown and that the best cure would be to put him back out on a three day shift with a sympathetic Team Leader – naturally the non americans in the Mission guffawed at this and bets were taken on whether Jack would forsake cows for his mad passion and perhaps conceive one for “ the sympathetic team leader “ which was the cue for a lot of jokes along the lines of what do you do with a mad , horny special forces guy with a knife at 2 am in a container in the mountains of Montenegro !
By now you will have guessed that I was the sympathetic Team Leader and Jack and I spent the next 48 hours together up in a little caravan in the mountains immediately after his 48 hour sedation … no problems although he did tell me about the cow and how he had accepted that it wouldn’t work out …I didn’t sleep for the first 24 hours .
I didn’t work with or see Jack again in that Mission as shortly after he crossed the front lines and joined the Muslim Army fighting the Serbs .
Post script two years later July 1998 – I was walking though Bacarsja in Sarajevo with Snezana and I heard a loud “Eamonn” being shouted – turning around to be gripped in a bear hug by this giant bearded guy in a Bosnian army uniform – it was Jack ! He was now a Colonel in the Bosnian Muslim army , based in Zenica and was training the Bosnian Special Forces – I asked another American later about Jack in Zenica – his soldiers worshipped him and would follow him anywhere !
Invasive plants in the garden
Weeds as they say are plants in the wrong place and all growing plants have a place in the eco system and as gardeners we learn which weeds are good and which have to be rooted out . Our garden here being wet in places has a large proportion of wild plants blown in as seedlings and over the years wild iris , marsh marigold and astilbe have colonised the wet areas with our blessing and have thrived along with the beautiful purple loose strife and meadow sweet . But there is one weed I hate and won’t tolerate … the creeping butter cup and in Ireland we have three types of butter cup , the sweet innocent meadow variety which flowers freely and which everyone loves , officially called the lesser celandine with it’s delicate yellow flowers and I try and encourage as much of it as possible as by May it has faded back into the ground . There is an evil version of creeping butter cup , ranuculus repens , which has deep spreading roots and thrives on wet soil . This creeping buttercup is hugely invasive and inserts itself in between plants and is my pet hate of all weeds , weed killer will stop it in it’s tracks for a while but not kill it and is impossible to eradicate except by digging out each one individually and making sure you have got all the roots and I get great satisfaction in kneeling down wherever I see a patch and digging it all up … it will take over an entire bed in a season with deep interlocking roots if you are not carefull .
My work in the garden throughout April has been dominated by the new water area where I have built paths along the stream and started the planting by digging over the ground and this is an excellent way to get to know the type of soil you have be it wet or dry and then planning the planting accordingly . In our case the ground in the new area is a mixture of extremely dry under the conifer canopy and hard clayey soil in the open areas and I have added hundreds of slips from around the garden of ground cover plants such as lamium , wild geraniums and alchemis mollis , all of which have self seeded around the garden and the plan is that they will eventually carpet the entire area .
I hadn’t planned to put a path in there but felt that the new walk along the dug out stream was so nice that it would be a lovely walk and a shame not to set it off properly… a week later having laid over seventy paving slabs by hand and many callouses later I am delighted with the result !
The planting plan has been to keep it low growing so that nothing will block the view of the water and the only tall plants I have added are various ferns which I have planted around the trees most of which I dug out from the laneways in our area and then added some garden centre shuttlecock and king ferns . Although the paving slabs add a formal touch I have gone with the flow of the ground and this has softened the look while in a few months the ground cover will hopefully give a more natural look .
This new area is on a passing trail used by the deer most nights across the garden and my planting has been confined by what I can plant here that deer won’t eat so hostas and Japanese maples are out which is a pity as both these would look great in this new planting . I tried some big leaved hostas at the water’s edge as generally the deer don’t eat these and are nervous about leaning out over the water however I then pushed it a bit and planted two Gold Standard hostas in a pot and next morning they had been trimmed back to the base so a full year of growth now gone … bastards … right plant wrong place !
April is the month you really need to protect hostas against slugs and if you don’t blitz with the slug pellets you will be left with raggedy leaf hostas full of holes . I sometimes ask myself if it is worth the effort it takes to grow hostas and to be constantly on guard against slug damage for that critical first six weeks of hosta growth but then in May when the leaves unfurl you know it has been worth it and that hostas are the finest perennials in the early Summer garden . If you are new to hosta growing I would recommend sticking to three varieties , Elegans , Francis Williams and Halcyon , these are the big leaf plants with dramatic architectural structure , show stoppers when grown together in groups and for some reason slugs do not attack these with the same intensity . All hostas need shade at some stage of the day as full sun washes out the vibrant green colour and tends to scorch the leaves and you need moist growing conditions or at least be prepared to water regularly .
I also grow hostas in pots close to the house and I specifically mention close to the house as that way I can water these pots regularly and I don’t grow anything else in these pots so in the winter there is nothing to see and to get away with this the pots themselves have to be striking looking . The biggest hosta sold commercially is Empress Wu but I don’t like the leaves which are ribbed with an insipid colour green and it’s size is the only thing it has going for itself . The best all round hosta is Elegans with Francis Williams it’s cousin a close second but which needs to be in shade otherwise it’s variegated leaf looks brassy in full sun .
In recent years I have started growing both June and Gold Standard in pots , again in shade where their variegation remains understated and these are two beautiful hostas . Breeders are turning out huge numbers of new hostas every year but hold out for these five , Elegans, Francis Williams , Halcyon , Gold Standard , June and you won’t be disappointed .
I know I said earlier that I sometimes wonder if they are worth the trouble in guarding hostas against slugs but they really are worth it and if you keep lashing the water into them they will give joy throughout the Summer and late into Autumn .
Colour in the Garden in April