At times such as mid January with rain and icy conditions in the garden it can be difficult to find something to kick off the blog with , a sort of gardening block so to speak and I discussed this once with Jane Powers , best selling author of The Irish Garden and the Sunday Times weekly garden columnist , as to how she coped with the grind of a weekly column to be delivered to a deadline and where does the inspiration come from . Jane was down to earth about it … “ bloody hard ” was how she described it and went on to say that in times of real pressure she was not above going back over old columns and taking her theme from there … I am a regular reader of Jane’s work and you would never see any hint of this but reassuring to know that even the professionals find it difficult some times to come up with original stuff .
There are trees and shrubs that come into their own in the dark winter months which will bring much needed colour and I have planted large numbers of silver birch jacquemontii and red cornus ( dogwoods ) to do just that and while the white bark of the birch is magnificent at all times of the year never more so than right now when there is so little else .
January for me has been a month of tidying up the huge cutting back that Snezana did throughout November and December and we have already filled one shed of wood which will be ready for use in the stoves next winter . We started out ten years ago with the idea of stacking all logs outdoors in the conifer wood and letting the stacks become bug hotels for insects and small animals such as hedgehogs and frogs and kept that practice until last November but since acquiring a chain saw she has cut down so much we would be tripping over it should we build anymore bug hotels !
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 when the ring master cracked his whip 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 !!
With Claire in 1977
Claire forty years later with her daughter , Mila , September 2017
A favourite singer song writer of mine , in fact my all time singer song writer since his first album in 1969 has been the great Leonard Cohen who died a year ago and whose music I inflicted on my kids for over thirty years . Leonard was the ultimate singer of sad songs and when he died , Claire , she of the elephant and “ my daddy will ” , penned this obituary which went viral on Facebook
Leonard Cohen was following me around Bosnia. Or rather, his voice was. My Dad was a customs officer and had to drive to the most remote border crossing points, and me, being a penniless student with little to do on my holidays, would fly out to Bosnia to spend to join him on road trips up and down the war-ravaged country.
This was the third time we’d stopped, the third bleak, deserted café in the wasteland of Bosnia after the war. Three different towns, three different ethnicities, three different currencies….and the only unifying factor was bloody Leonard Cohen.
I say “bloody Leonard Cohen” in a fond-but-exasperated way. My father, known in our family as a “Cohen pusher”, would play his records over and over again to anyone who will listen. Holidays to France, with four kids captive in the back seat of our Renault 12, were pure torture.
In revenge, my brothers and I would try to taunt him by staging elaborate suicide scenes, such as lying in wait in the bathroom with a razor poised at the wrist, or play dead on the couch with pills (Smarties) strewn around our lifeless bodies, croaking “We’re doing a Leonard, Dad”.
Never got a rise out of him.
Anyway, the fact that Cohen’s music was playing in each of three cafes or restaurants we stopped at that day made my father very happy indeed. And in a way, it was fitting, because in this country, as broken and divided as it was, there was always more to unite them than divide them. The coffee was the same, even though they called it by different names. They all ate those sticky, syrupy cakes made so popular by the Turks during their, um, residence in the country. And they all seemed to really like Leonard Cohen. They might have played First We Take Manhattan at the Dayton peace talks and wrapped the whole thing up quicker.
Cohen himself was a pretty Zen guy. I like to think the universe paid him back by giving him plenty of women, acclaim, and mass turnouts at the comeback concerts he forced to do when his manager stole all his money.
My dad recently told me a story he had read somewhere, of Leonard Cohen at a party a few months before he died . He just sat down on his own, picked up a guitar and started to strum, quietly humming the words to one of his famous songs. Bit by bit, women, young and old, began to kneel down at either side of him, listening intently. One of his friends whispered to him, Leonard, did you notice that you’re surrounded by women. Without looking up from his guitar and strumming away, he whispered back, “Works every time”.
And just to show his lasting appeal , one year after his death in November 2016 Leonard Cohen was last night in Los Angeles awarded a Grammy Award for his song You want it Darker .
January colour in the Garden
Today was one of those bitter January days in the garden and was not a day for tip toeing through the shrubberies but more a day for layering on the East Russian looking gardening heavy duty wear and keeping active so a good day for collecting in the last barrow fulls of timber and lashing into clearing an area of brambles with the slash hook … when we started building the garden 15 years ago there was an area more boggy than most which is saying something , an area too big to drain so I emphasised the wet conditions by damming the stream and layering up with banks of earth around it which turned it into complete wet lands and today was a day I ventured back onto those banks for over ten years and by now they were overgrown with thick brambles but I could see that there were some nice silver birch and some golden willows thriving away out of sight . More importantly what has thrived in the wet conditions has been clumps of tussock grass which I have elsewhere in the garden … you cannot buy tussock grass , it has to be created by nature whereby the grass self seeds and then slowly over the years builds up a tower like mound of earth to a metre high so I was thrilled to see a group of tussock emerge almost fully grown from the brambles … I have no idea how or why the tussock grass grows where it does , I have rarely ever seen it grow anywhere else and the only place I have seen it is just outside Ballymacarbery on the road to Dungarvan when I was travelling by bus and saw a group of them tucked into a boggy corner below the level of the road in an isolated area .
For the past three years I have been pruning the golden willows on a single stem since I first saw this type of cloud pruning in Karl Wrights wonderful garden in Co. Clare where he had a very effective group of three golden willows on a river bank and since I have cropped over fifty golden willows here every spring and by late summer they have all grown over three metres in length and give a great show and are even better in the winter when the fan tail of new whippy growth provide great winter colour .
Before pruning in January 2018
After pruning January 2018
Rather severe I know but by August they will have substantially grown back and by November will be ready to provide that great winter colour again and while I could have enjoyed the uncut branches until early March I go by my usual advice on when is the best time to prune … if you are in the mood and have the saw in your hand go for it and waiting for March runs the risk of the sap rising earlier in the tree as it comes out of the dormant period and you could cause damage .
I planted most of our golden willows as slips about 12 inches usually in groups of five then after the first year select the strongest and take off all the side shoots leaving a central single stem of five feet and each Spring cut back hard to where the strongest shoots begin , I continue to do this every year as we have a lot of ground available which is suitable for willows plus it seems a shame not to use the cuttings . This photo shows the first time I used this method of pollarding and I started the fan tail too high and leaves it less easy to prune so now I cut at about four feet and can prune at chest level .
I always practised selective pollarding on the willows with the rule of thumb of cutting back hard stems which were the thickness of a wrist and this kept rejuvenating the tree while also keeping growth in check as willows get out of hand very quickly however there are several trees I never cut back such as silver birch although before planting I do cut back the central leader by a metre which helps promote a more rounded shape before the real growth occurs after two or three years . I have strong views on cutting a silver birch as it mutilates such a noble tree , all because the owner of the garden did not have the foresight to realise before planting that silver birch can grow tall and there are several rows I pass each day on my way into Clonmel which are regularly cut in two and in my view it is pure sacrilege to do this and it really annoys me .
I keep preaching that before you cut anything in the garden you should know why you are cutting it , how to cut it and what the purpose of cutting it is and of course you always cut to shape , to remove dead or diseased growth and finally to promote new growth but try telling that to Snezana who thinks all garden knowledge is mainly pretentious and today I came across a space near a newly cut willow copse where a sambucus niger , the black leafed foliage elder , used to reside and which I saw had been cut to the ground and OK while it will come back again and might even benefit from a total cropping , that was not the point and after much effing and blinding and hopping up and down on the spot and shouts of what have you done with the f..king sambucus niger there followed the usual well if I did cut it down I didn’t do it with purpose … she has just come back from a four day Danish Foreign Ministry course in Copenhagen on how to survive a hostage situation where she was kidnapped , handcuffed and held blind folded at night with a sack over her head for two hours in a forest while various “ terrorists ” shouted abuse at her and when people here in Clonmel have asked how it was she says easy peasy and nothing like she has to put up with in the garden at Old Spa Road !
I started this article in early January when Winter seemed to have ages to run but on February 1st we have the official beginning of Spring in Ireland , St. Brigid’s Day which is a Celtic fertlity goddess in origin predating Christianity something of course we were never taught in school when we were fed a diet that before St. Patrick brought us christianity there was just a bunch of savages running around in bear skins !
Looking out from my desk as I write this I can see the first crocus and snow drops , only two or three mind but it is a start and enough to convince that the new growing season is just around the corner .
The first snow drop January 29th 2018
And the first crocus January 29th 2018