I am often asked at Gardening Q &A’s do you give your honest opinion when asked about a garden … and my answer is I do , sometimes brutally and often I give my opinion even when I haven’t been asked !
Of course if you think the person is a beginner or somehow unsure about their gardening skills or wouldn’t be able to take criticism on board then I certainly would not be directly honest but I always try to be constructive . I have one gardening friend who always offers her view on a visit to our garden here and I value that opinion as it has a lifetime of gardening experience behind it and from my first garden in Rosslare forty years ago I have always asked advice from experts .
Gardeners have all been beginners and they always remember how it felt not knowing a hydrangea from a eucalyptus and the best advice any gardener can give or receive is Right Plant Right Place .
Like all gardeners however we sometimes , most times , don’t take our own advice and we plant the wrong things in the wrong place , convincing ourselves that SOMEHOW this one will buck the system and survive like Gloria Gaynor !
This week I had such a moment when the recent hard spell cut down a beautiful New Zealand purple cordyline I had planted three years ago into a pot in the front of the house … any of these variegated or coloured cordylines are tricky and prone to prolonged frost but I thought the south facing position against a brick wall and my superior knowledge would protect it … not to be and Jack Frost left it in the sorry state you see in the photo … will I try again definitely not , lesson learned … AGAIN !
Our January frost spell lasted just a week but in that week it was as damaging as the last heavy frost of 2010 in Ireland which went on for almost six weeks and gardens all over the country including ourselves lost a lot of normally hardy shrubs and trees .
But you know I got three years of enjoyment looking at that cordyline and it cost originally probably twenty euros … three years of beauty, I ‘ll take that .
Lessons were also learned about trying to grow and keep alive some echiums I had been given as small seedlings by a gardening friend a few years ago … echiums are fabulous exotic architectural looking plants and Margaret’s had colonised an entire area for her … my original two echiums were eaten by the deer so I placed the next two in the back garden close to the house where they grew really well for the past two years but this latest frost got them both even though I had covered them up at night with newspapers … Margaret lost her entire echium collection in the same period , heart breaking but the same story all over the country this year and Carl Wright just this week wrote “While I was away there were some very frosty nights and it looks like some plants won’t survive including the Echiums. I am trying to grow Echiums for the last 20 years with no much success so may be its time I gave up !!”
Of course the stuff you would like to die in the frost doesen’t and I am thinking specifically of parrot feather , myriophyclum aquaticum , which has got a grip on various parts of our water garden areas and is very difficult to get rid of . A beautiful looking lime green plant that grows on the water’s surface and which if not controlled quickly spreads and takes over large areas . I have tried spraying it with round up , no use and the only solution is to rip it out every few months and I have been doing that for the past ten years since first planting it . It is sold in garden centres from time to time with no notice about it’s invasivness and is fine for concrete or rubber lined man made pools where it can be easily fished out but here it is a huge problem for us as the water areas are natural and in some parts wide and deep so you can’t stand in the water and reach with an extendable rake the areas not close to the sides .
Last week we attacked the lower water area and pulled a huge mass of parrot feather out on to the bank where it will be left for a few days to allow any little water creatures caught up in the weed time to escape back into the water .
I love the longer , well slightly longer , daylight we get in late January and this stolen half hour in the evening is the time I best enjoy in the garden at this dull frozen or wet time of the year .
Colour in the Garden in January
A lot of my gardening work in January and February is brambles as I wrote last month and I love getting a good grip and yanking them out by the roots cave man style but occasionally the odd one resists and I get yanked into them by my momentum but warm and enjoyable work !
Brambles are hugely invasive and if left to themselves will colonise large areas very quickly with rooting systems that when they get a hold need to be physically dug out individually … brambles arch outwards and down towards the ground and about a metre before touching the ground again the bramble grows a clump of roots at the end of each tip and as soon as the tip touches the ground the roots are immediately ready to anchor themselves into the earth and the regrowth cycle continues like that until they either run out of ground or are cut down … brambles are conditioned to survive and multiply and the gardener really needs to pay attention to them or be overrun .
A bramble tip already growing roots before it touches the ground … one I got in time .
However from now until the end of April our main work in the garden is pruning and cutting back mainly the willows which over the year I have trained onto single stems to a height of five feet where the new growth creates an architectural fan tail shape of strong young shoots . It takes about four years to train single stem willows in this way and then a further two years or more of hard pruning to remove the inevitable side shoots that keep developing but generally after that they are trouble free and you just prune out the fan tail shoots as they get thicker and my rule of thumb is that I prune hard to the base any new shoots thicker than my thumb !
Yes it is a lot of pruning every year at this time but worth it as the new single willows look great especially the pure golden willow and they add an unusual structure to the garden especially in winter .
Pruning duties at Petrovska Garden January 2023
I first saw this willow pruning feature in County Clare on a visit to Carl Wrights’s wonderful garden at Caher Bridge near Fanore in the Burren seven years ago and have been practicing it here in our garden since then … Carl saw it somewhere else and all gardeners borrow from each other !
Carl and I exchanged garden visits in the Summer of 2016 and I was blown away by his garden which is built over two acres of scrubby stony ground in the heart of the Burren limestone … one of the best gardens I have ever visited and if you are in the West of Ireland from May onwards I would strongly recommend a visit to the Caher Bridge garden which like here is open to the Public by appointment .
Carl Wright’s visit to our garden at Old Spa Road June 2015
We end up with a huge amount of woody pruning left overs , the really nice golden stems are selected and prepared for planting up again as cuttings , about pencil thick ( no more ) and 18 inches long shoved straight into the open ground where you would like them to grow , about six inches deep , three or five at a time about six inches apart … the remaining wood cuttings like the brambles are chopped into small pieces six to eight inches long and left on the ground throughout the beds where over time they will compost back into the earth and provide humus among the shrubberies .
I am also cutting back shrubs such as hypericum , in some cases quite severely where I have missed pruning for a year or two and in these cases I cut almost fifty percent of the shrub out . Most shrubs can be hacked into at this time of year and the regrowth will be fairly instant over the next month but you need to be careful not to cut anything that is due to flower in May or you will miss a flowering until next year .
I walked the garden with a friend recently who hasen’t been through the garden for two years and he was amazed at the growth … as also I was seeing the garden through his eyes as we are so used to walking the garden almost on a daily basis and you kind of miss the growth and development which has occurred . It is always good to get someone else’s perspective on the planting and to bounce ideas off for possible future design tweaks so we stood in the new wilded area and between all three of us we came up with the idea of a new hard core path through the area which we will work up to a plan for May when the ground is drier .
The first tentative shoots of the new season’s snow drops came up in late January and the same thought always comes to me as to WHY I DIDN’T PLANT MORE SNOW DROPS !
Always the same every year as you can never have enough snow drops but somehow when loading up the shopping basket with the new spring bulbs in the garden centre every October the humble snow drop doesen’t seem to make the same shouty noises of take me take me that the more showy daffodils and tulips do BUT NEXT YEAR WILL BE DIFFERENT !
But the first crocus in January also warms the heart ,
We both love being out in the garden here although I always feel Snezana gets more of the wellness and mindfulness out of it than I do as she takes the time to stop and commune with the trees ( she does she does ) whereas I have a more blue arsed fly approach trying to fit all the jobs in and I am always a bit suspicious of all this mindfulness you see in newspaper articles at this time of the year when people spout off about the pleasures of working in the garden however one article popped up in the UK Telegraph Gardening Section of January 21st by Bunny Guinness which seemed to say it best .
“ Gardening sucks you in . From the moment you start a garden you create the opportunity to make the perfect space to live with .Unlike creating a home you will never totally finish it . As your garden grows you can remould it and see endless new plants and possibilities that pique your interest. There is nothing else in life that grabs hold of you like a garden . Watch over it carefully and ponder its possibilities . A long term engagement with this is the best tonic for both mind and body ”
I often share memories of my time working abroad particularly in the Former Yugoslavia during and after the Bosnian War but the following piece is from my time growing up in Barron Park in the late 1950’s … all the families , over sixty of them and all young , had moved in together to the new housing estate in the mid 1950’s so there was lots of kids my own age to play with and on non school days we played outside from early morning to tea time then off out again until bed … no TV in those days so we made our own entertainment , off exploring the countryside which in those days came up to the edge of the estate but for the boys soccer was our main sport and the boy who actually owned a football always had to be picked on a team … in my time if we were lucky maybe two boys owned a football which was a precious thing !
For me an idyllic time and place from where I have the fondest of memories .
Every fine evening after school we selected teams and played soccer in the Park , everyone got a game , no such things as goal posts back then , a few coats on the ground was grand .We all had favourite footballers we liked to imagine ourselves as usually Di Stefano and Puskas of Real Madrid and quite a few liked Garrincha of Brazil while my own favourite was Jimmy Greaves who played for Tottenham Hotspur . The game usually ended when we were called in for our tea and come 6 pm it was like the Muslim call to prayer with all the mothers calling us in , nobody compared notes on what their tea was and it never occurred to us that anybody got anything different and we certainly never experienced hunger although I am sure quite a few mothers went without to make sure we had sausages the odd time .
Mrs. Keane opposite our house had two sons, Johnny and Liamie , lovely lads but if you touched either of them during a game and they got hurt and ran home crying then the game immediately ended and we all scattered as Mrs. Keane was a lioness where her lads were concerned and she would charge out of the house looking for the culprit who hit her Johnny or Liamie but cross Mrs. Keane at your peril and one day she chased myself and Alec Logue out of the Park and up into Ard Fatima , we kept running until we reached the railway gates about a mile away and she was still after us swearing vengeance and as we kept running we would ask each other “ is she still there ” … she gave up as we ran up Ard Gaoithe past where the rugby pitch was later built and decided to take a round about detour of over two miles before chancing going back to the Park in another direction by the main Cashel road after two hours … just passing the railway gates at 2nd Barron Park Jesus she was waiting for us and jumped out and off we went again , Alec and I with Mrs Keane in hot pursuit swearing what she would do to us when she caught us and it was long after midnight before we felt it was safe to run the gauntlet again and get in home safely !!
Mind you Mrs. Keane never held a grudge and next day all would be forgotten … as long as you didn’t kick Johnny or Liamie !
Years later when I saw Butch Cassidy & the Sundance kid where the sheriff’s posse is chasing the outlaws and stayed behind for hours , the chase seemed to go on forever and finally Paul Newman turns to Robert Redford and says “ WHO ARE THEY ”… it brought me back instantly to the night Mrs. Keane chased Alec and myself !
Goodbye January Blues
I always feel that when January , such a long month to get through , is over that the gardening year can now begin and we have the best of the seasons to look forward to , onwards and upwards !