Gardeners seldom have patience in growing plants and we all want instant growth or at least I do and it is a great feeling when the garden gets established , the borders have thickened out and you can add things and not be hovering around waiting for them to grow …such is now the case at Old Spa Road and I am getting to that same stage with the new garden in Croatia after six years where in the top terrace gravel garden where the plants have at last adapted to survive the baking hot summers and I now have plants peeping out from under plants in no particular order about height or colour … it was a question of packing plants in and hoping they would survive the long periods of harsh sun and drought .
October is the best month for dividing perennials which in the case of hostas should be done every three or four years as the centre of the clump becomes woody otherwise and it is also an excellent way to get extra plants … division is easy just dig up the entire clump and with a spade cut it into four pieces , no need to be fussy as each quarter will happily romp away in it’s new location . I find it is better to plonk each division straight away into it’s new location rather than pot it up and wait for spring to plant it out and I generally dig in lot’s of fresh compost to help the new plant get started …be sure and mark the new location though so that you can keep an eye on the fresh shoots in early April and circle with slug pellets to keep the snails away as they just love fresh young hosta shoots … slug pellets separate the gardeners from the budding eco warriors so if it is be kind to slugs week then you can forget about healthy hostas and take my word for it most gardeners go down the slug pellet route no matter what they say in public .
Last week I picked up some extra spring bulbs and a few trays of wall flowers to be tucked into the borders in sunny positions where they will give beautiful colour and smell from late March onwards . At this time of year I visit the garden centres on a weekly basis as the Head Gardeners if worth their salt will have a huge array of small size potted up winter and spring flowers available and in my area both Clonmel Garden Centre with Lynda and Kilcoran Lodge with Mary Skelly and Rebecca n charge always have a great display available unlike your average supermarkets which are selling plants with no love or attention just like Kellogs corn flakes … avoid them and get your plants from a proper garden centre .
October colour in the Garden
Late October after heavy rains and the garden can be a depressing place and this October has been a record breaking one for rain … I have just come in after walking the garden and everything looks pretty bedraggled with the autumnal leaf fall having kicked in early leaving a mess everywhere on the paths and through the planting areas , leaving a huge amount of clean up not to mention having to cut back the by now leafless stems of cornus and willows … no complaints though as this is gardening , bring out the leaf blower and stop moaning !
On my first day back in the house in Old Spa Road after a week away I looked out the kitchen window to find this guy sprawled out and staring in at me quite relaxed and contented and he remained there even when I took out the camera to snap off this photo before finally strolling off … I am used to deer tolerating us in the garden here and they normally put on the semblance of urgency when I go Shoo but something about the size and regal air of this stag said I will go when I decide !!
Perhaps I imagined it but did he say listen up I hear you have been blathering on for years in that gardening blog of yours that deer have been taking the odd bite out of your precious hostas and for your information we have been walking this land for thousands of years and we are OK’ish with you adding all these trees and shrubberies for the past twenty years so lighten up about the f..king hostas … OK ???!
The past few months have featured our gardening in Croatia but just in case any one has any doubts , my heart lies with our Irish garden where it’s greenery , colour and variety throughout the year appeals more than the parched rocks of Dalmatia . Gardening along the Adriatic with it’s heat can be difficult and a diversity of trees and shrubs just isen’t there while the range of plants that can thrive and survive with the long periods of drought and summer heat of 38 degrees daily is limited to a small palette . I love the olive trees and the Mediterranean plants you can grow such as yuccas and aguaves but for a real garden you need the climate we enjoy in Ireland and the UK … that said a garden with a view of the Adriatic or Mediterranean doesen’t need a diversity of plants !
Having worked and lived in the Balkans for almost thirty years now I have favourite foods I associate and love with each of the Former Yugoslavia countries as for example stuffed red peppers from Macedonia , cepacici from Bosnia , the bean dish from Serbia and the latest favourite is blitva from Croatia .
To the list of food I also have to add a red pepper relish called Ajvar which can accompany all foods on the table and it is a relish common to all the Balkan countries but best made with red peppers from Macedonia to which are added huge amounts of garlic and onion … delicious and as I write this in Ireland I can almost taste ajvar .You can buy the Croatian version of ajvar in Ireland but it is a poor copy and the best commercially made ajvar is made in Macedonia and is called Mama’s Avjar .
Cepapcici are basically like sausages … but not as know them !! … fingers of hand rolled mince with various spice mixtures added and a normal helping in a restaurant is ten usually served on flat bread called lepinja …. with a side dish of home made ajvar and a dish of chopped onions . The best cepapcici are made and sold in Sarajevo and and while you won’t find much unity in the Balkans normally but everyone in the Former Yugoslavia agrees on this .
Burek is made of minced meat mainly but is also made in single varieties of cheese , potato and spinach , all served wrapped in flaky pastry . Burek originally from Turkey is in my experience best produced in Sarajevo and most Balkan people would agree with this … I am addicted to burek since I first tasted it late at night in Skopje in 1994 when a friend said taste this it will change your life forever ” !
To this list of favourite Balkan food is now added blitva , a simple dish and therefore the easiest to get wrong ! Blitva is made from shredded swiss chard mixed through with chopped up boiled potato with olive oil , garlic , salt and pepper added and some people make it instead with spinach . I didn’t know it but the village close to us , Podgora , has been known as the blitva capital of Dalmatia since Yugoslav days with people from Podgora called Blitvari which is why I found myself in early October at the first ever Blitva festival in Podgora .
Although the food was always delicious we weren’t always popular in the Balkans especially in the Bosnian Serb dominated Trebinje where this sign greeted me on arriving for a conference in 2005 !
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 ” !!
A friend of mine in Makarska , Mate Srdic , has been quietly doing his bit for the old traditions for many years , sourcing natural materials for making and selling pots and ornaments and earlier this year in April he made these three pots out of old roof tiles for our garden here . Mate has recently salvaged and entire roof in Makarska where the builder was discarding the original red clay roof tiles that were laid down over two hundred years ago and I have already ordered more pots from these antique tiles including some that I will bring to Ireland for the garden at Old Spa Road .
In my forty plus years as a gardener I have never dug up or discarded a tree or shrub and OK some things I have planted have outgrown their original locations and crowd out other plants and the odd path (or two) has even been blocked by excessive growth but I have always tolerated these … until last week . In Croatia about ten years ago I bought a nice looking cacti in a pot , called a prickly pear , stuck it at the back of a collection of pots and then six years ago I transferred it from the pot to open ground just inside the boundary fence of the olive grove where it grew into a monster . Now the prickly pear has vicious thorns and not only that , the prickly pear will shoot out these thorns at anything that passes within a few inches of it , you don’t even have to touch it and the stings can last up to two days , a real nasty bugger that Snezana has hated but this year it got out of hand big time and you couldn’t get near an olive tree that was close to the prickly pear’s location and with the olive harvest coming round in five days something had to happen otherwise we couldn’t pick this particular part of the olive tree and this year of all years with the olive yield low we needed all the olives … so the prickly pear had to go … how do you approach a prickly pear you ask ?
The answer is very carefully indeed so I hacked away at it with a long handed shovel and even then I got stung several times … never plant a prickly pear !
I wrote about Lovrinka last month and how at 87 years she I still foraging for wild herbs . I met her again last week and this time she was out looking for wild mushrooms and we went back to her house to see her large collection of foraged herbal teas of fennel ,rosemary , mint … you name it and Lovrinka collects and bottles it and we were not allowed leave without a bottle of her home made rakia flavoured with five types of wild berries .
Lovrinka learned about wild herbs from her Mother growing up in Gornja Podgora and I asked for example how she knew the different fungi as I am always scared of any mushroom in the wild and she explained that you had to learn from a mentor while out foraging which she did mainly in Slovenia where she spent most of her married life before returning to Gornja Podgora a few years ago and she added that I was right to be afraid as a mistake with the wrong fungi could have severe health issues . Lovrinka has a large garden and is self sufficient in fruit and vegetables for most of the year but this year with the drought meant watering every day and you see her most mornings out in her garden from 6 am . Lovrinka also has twenty olive trees which produce 30 litres of olive oil every year , her kitchen look like an old fashioned pharmacy with it’s rows and rows of bottled preserves and teas …the great herbal and natural history knowledge that Lovrinka’s and fellow enthusiasts have should be passed on in schools to the next generation not just in Croatia but all over the world .
An Olive Harvest at Gornja Podgora
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 .
A survey last week in Croatia of 25 varieties of olive oils sold in local supermarkets showed that only one bottle was pure , the rest had been mixed with god knows what so the counterfeit and fake olive oil practices have even spread to Croatia .
The leading UK independent olive oil taster and tester , Judy Ridgeway , recently wrote “once you ensure that there is no fault in the oil there isen’t really a right or wrong oil , I ‘m looking for complexity of flavour , , a balance of fruitiness , bitterness and pepperiness ”.
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 !
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.
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 .
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 !
Planting up pots for Winter / Spring
October early November is a good time to plant up any spare pots you might have that are not already taken with plants . I have a few pots set aside for this seasonal type planting and having cleared out the last remaining dying summer annuals I paid a visit to the garden centre to see what was available . Like annuals you can pack the plants in and today I put low growing tulip bulbs deep in the centre and surrounded them with a mixture of violas and wall flowers and the violas ( not a great bedding plant in my view but it was available today) will take up the winter colour until April when the wall flowers and tulips will kick in … after flowering I will plant the tulips into the open ground where they might give another season but generally bulbs in pots get weaker each year and I normally would just throw them away rather than be disappointed with the display the next year and a lot of gardeners , Helen Dillon included , who depend a lot on bulbs in containers maintain it is better to treat them as annuals .
Clonmel Garden Centre is following the new trend in container planting which is called Lasagna planting where you pack a pot with bulbs at different levels with the earliest flowering such as snow drops , crocus and daffodils , at the top of the pot and then lower down your tulips and alliums so that when the earlier bulbs have finished flowering the lower down bulbs will push up through to the surface and continue the flowering process … definitely with this type of planting the bulbs will be exhausted and should be discarded . I am not a fan of lasagna planting and think it is gimmicky straight out of Gardener’s World but worth a go if you have a spare pot and it will be a talking point when people visit you !
Last days of October in the Garden