Wendy Walsh: an appreciation

March 22, 2014 § 12 Comments

Wendy Walsh © James Fennell

Wendy Walsh
© James Fennell

On the night of Monday, March 3rd 2014, Ireland’s most respected botanical artist died, a month before her 99th birthday. Wendy Walsh (née Storey) was born in Bowness-on-Windermere in Cumbria, but she came to live here in 1958 when her husband, Lt. Col. John Walsh, originally from Edgeworthstown in Co Longford, retired from the British army. 

It was not until Wendy Walsh was in her sixties that her work became widely known. In 1978 her paintings of wildflowers were reproduced on four postage stamps, and for the following six years she was commissioned annually to produce stamps on the theme of Irish flora and fauna. In 1983, she collaborated with Dr Charles Nelson and Ruth Isabel Ross on the first volume of An Irish Florilegium: Wild and Garden Plants of Ireland, a sumptuous publication with 48 hand-tipped colour plates. Her name was suddenly everywhere, and the book was found in all the best drawing rooms. Today, the scarce first edition is offered for between €600 and €1250 by rare book dealers. The second volume followed in 1988.

Chaenomeles x superba 'Rowallane' in the Irish Florilegium

Chaenomeles x superba ‘Rowallane’ in An Irish Florilegium

Wendy’s paintings are keenly observed plant studies, with each detail carefully and faithfully rendered. They exactly capture the vulnerable softness of a petal, the beige brittleness of an autumn flower stalk, the joyful freshness of a spring bud, the angular kink in a year-old twig. Her colour matches are flawless and her composition elegant. In her best works, her subjects inhabit the page with the same kind of poise and presence that a great dancer manifests on stage.

The paintings are all the more remarkable because Wendy Walsh was that rare thing, a self-taught artist in a discipline that requires a precise knowledge of a science: in this case, botany. She was brought up, as she told me a few years ago, “in a curious old age” with a “mother who hated school and wouldn’t let any of her girls go to school.” She was taught by an “indifferent governess” until she was 14, and had no further education after that. Yet, she had an analytical and curious mind, consuming books and — as a teenager — keeping an illustrated wildlife diary.

Holly from Trees of Ireland

Holly from Trees of Ireland

Her mother named her Wendy Felicité after a favourite cocker spaniel and a French rose. She was gracious about the quirky origins of her name, and believed that it shaped her career as a painter of animals and plants. In the 1930s, she undertook commissions to paint dogs. She rode horses and hunted, and enjoyed herself immensely. “The 1930s were blissful times, no money, but lots of fun!”

During the Second World War she worked as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), a voluntary field nurse, and met a man whose horsemanship made him stand out from the many other officers. She married John Walsh in 1941, following him from camp to camp — moving 13 times in a year — until he was shipped out with the Eighth Army to north Africa. His army work during and after the war saw him travel extensively, including to the United States, India, Japan and Singapore. Sometimes Wendy and the growing family (three children eventually) were in tow, sometimes not. She told me: “That’s what the army’s like. We were always being separated and starting again.”

Eventually they settled back in Ireland, in Lusk, while John worked as the agent for Trinity College in Dublin, managing the campus. In 1999, after 40 years in north county Dublin, they moved to the stable-yard of Burtown House in Athy, Co Kildare, the home of their daughter, Lesley Fennell, a portrait painter.

Viola 'Irish Molly' and V. 'Molly Sanderson' from An Irish Garden Replanted

Viola ‘Irish Molly’ and V. ‘Molly Sanderson’ from An Irish Garden Replanted

Throughout her life, Wendy drew and painted whenever she had time, and over the years completed hundreds of commissions. She won numerous awards, including gold medals from the Royal Horticultural Society and the Alpine Garden Society. In 1996 Trinity College Dublin conferred an honorary DLitt on her, which, she said: “made me laugh, and delighted me so much. It struck me as funny that someone who had never been to school could call themselves doctor.”

Wendy worked on over a dozen books, almost all of which were close collaborations with Charles Nelson, the former taxonomist at the National Botanic Gardens. Their working relationship, he says, was “a very amicable partnership”.

She was a good teacher, too, and continued to take students into her nineties. One former student recalls how she gave careful attention to each class participant. When a piece was so wrong that it was impossible to correct, she would say kindly, but pointedly: “That is rather a mistake.”

Many of those in the newly formed Irish Society of Botanical Artists have been inspired by this talented, generous and modest woman. It is fitting that on the morning of the society’s foundation on March 1st, just two days before her death, she was nominated its first member. 

Wendy Walsh: April 9th 1915 – March 3rd 2014

The Wild and Garden Plants of Ireland

The Wild and Garden Plants of Ireland, paintings by Wendy F. Walsh, with text by E. Charles Nelson, was published by Thames & Hudson in 2009. All the 99 illustrations from the 2-volume Irish Florilegium are gathered into this book: a perfect introduction to the work of Wendy Walsh.  

This blog post is an a version of my column, which appeared in the Sunday Times on March 16th 2014

Plants we love to hate

February 13, 2014 § 24 Comments

 Ask any gardener their favourite plant, and they pause . . .  think . . . pause . . . and then come out with something indefinite or general. They like “what’s in flower now”, or “plants that do well in my soil”, or “old roses”. But, ask them what plants they hate, and there is no hesitation. They get right down to it, in detail and with enthusiasm. In other words, we gardeners are devoted to hating certain plants. So, in honour of St Valentine’s Day and its theme of love, I thought that it might be fun to consider plants that gardeners love to hate.

I was going to start with my own pet abominations, but I’ve found a man whose list of dislikes is one that I might have written myself, so I’ll let him speak for both of us. Andrew Wilson is the head of the judging panel for show gardens at Bloom, Ireland’s annual horticultural event in the Phoenix Park. Based in London, he is also a lecturer, designer and writer — and detester of variegated plants. They look ill, he says: “spattered, mottled or simply just a disgusting and fading yellow. I remember finding a golden-leaved Weigela tucked at the back of Denmans Garden in glorious pink flower, and wanting to vomit. I still use it in colour lectures to say ‘why would anyone do this?’ ”

Wilson also hates lilac and privet, and is not too keen on hybrid tea roses either. Photinia ‘Red Robin’, rhododendrons and Hydrangea macrophylla are also on his roster of disliked shrubs. Potential designers of show gardens at Bloom, take note.

Oh no, not another hydrangea!

Oh no, not another hydrangea!

Helen Dillon, whose patch in Ranelagh is one of the best town gardens in the world, can’t stand purple plum trees and Acer ‘Crimson King’.

“I particularly hate the purple plum,” she says. “I can see why people will fall for it. It looks pretty for a couple of weeks in early spring, with its pale-pink blossom. But when you get to August, it is positively vile: it gets darker and darker and darker. If you screw your eyes up, it looks black. Black and dead. A heavy, sulky, horrid thing.”

Acer ‘Crimson King’, a dark-leaved Norway maple, is even worse, she says, because of its larger leaves. “It is poisonous, because its does more killing, more shading out. It’s so unfair on its neighbours.”

Frances MacDonald of the Bay Garden, Camolin, Co Wexford, and garden tour manager for the Travel Department has a special hostility towards orchids. “Can’t bear them. Hate getting them. There is nothing worse than seeing them stringing along on a grey windowsill in Ireland. They should be seen in a jungle setting or, at a push, in Madeira or Jersey where they are properly displayed and impeccably grown.” MacDonald sits on many question-and-answer panels at garden shows, and nothing irritates her more than the inevitable: “I got a present of an orchid, and can you tell me how to make it flower again?” What she doesn’t reply, but would love to, is: “Why not just stick to the good old spider plant? It used to be good enough for us.”

Will they still be singing after a few months on an Irish window sill?

Will they still be singing after a few months on an Irish window sill?

In Dunmore East in Co Waterford, Michael Kelly, founder of GIY, an international movement of home growers, is at odds with the globe artichoke. “It’s very decorative, not a bad-looking piece of kit — but it contributes the least for the most space. You get all this palaver about growing it, and then at the end, you get this tiny disc of food after all the ridiculousness of peeling back those scaly things — are they petals? — and dipping them in butter, and pretending that they taste good. You know, everything tastes good if you dip it in butter. I’d much prefer to root it out and put sixty beetroot in the same space.”

Bedding begonias are top of Geoff Stebbings’s bugaboo list. The show judge and former editor of the British Garden Answers magazine is restoring a large garden in Co Wexford. “They do have lots of good points: they grow in shade, they flower for ever, they don’t get any pests or diseases. They tick lots of boxes, but they’re like a plant designed by committee. They are boring and completely without any characer. They’re like little blobs of colour. There is something about the smug, dumpiness of them.You almost feel like you want to stamp on them to put them out of their misery.”

I agree. I wouldn’t mind consigning them to the compost heap — along with most of the plants above. And, can we add those ghastly orange, pink, wine and lime-green heucheras to the pile, as well?

How about you? What plant do you love to hate?

A version of this blog post appeared in the Sunday Times.

A few good books

December 9, 2013 § 4 Comments

I’ve been up to my oxters in garden-related books for the past couple of weeks in order to bring you my pick of the crop for 2013. First though, I have a plea. I have noticed that an increasing number of books now contain no index. Negotiating a book without an index is like navigating without a compass, GPS or other aid. It takes away the fun and adds a heap of frustration. My plea to publishers is this: don’t lose the index for the sake of a few quid. If non-fiction books are to compete with the internet, they must hold on tight to their indexes. 

Seeing Flowers imageOne book that I can’t put down is Seeing Flowers, with photography by Robert Llewellyn and text by Teri Dunn Chace (Timber Press, £20). Its 175 exquisite macro photographs of flowers are completely addictive. I keep returning again and again to sneak another look, and to read Chace’s informative text. Llewellyn uses “focus stacking”, where multiple shots of a subject are taken at varying focus points and then melded together in a computer application. The results are luminous, delicate portraits with every last hair and pollen grain in focus.

New English Garden cover 2

There is more excellent photography, of the luscious kind, by Andrew Lawson, Jane Sebire and Rachel Warne in The New English Garden, by Tim Richardson (Frances Lincoln, £40). It features 25 gardens that have been created or re-created during this century. Among their makers are some of today’s most important designers, including Tom Stuart-Smith, Piet Oudolf, Christopher Bradley-Hole and Arabella Lennox-Boyd (who has recently redesigned the landscape at Airfield in Dundrum, Dublin). The book is an important record of a new golden age in British garden design. Among the well-known horticultural hot spots in its pages are Christopher Lloyd’s Great Dixter, James Hitchmough’s and Nigel Dunnett’s Olympic Park, and the over-egged pudding that is the Prince of Wales’s Highgrove.

Of Rhubarb and ROses imageTim Richardson has also edited Of Rhubarb and Roses: The Telegraph Book of the Garden (Aurum, £25). This is a compendium of articles from the newspaper for the pin-striped elite, which has always had excellent horticultural coverage. The book’s contributions range from 1935 to the present day and come from Vita Sackville-West, Constance Spry, Mary Keen, Fred Whitsey, Beth Chatto, Dan Pearson, and many others. Also included are garden-related letters to the editor and news items. Not included is an index, but the publisher has left 20 blank pages at the end, so you could write your own, I suppose.

Planting a new perspective 2Planting: A New Perspective, by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury (Timber Press, £30) is an essential guide for those interested in the new perennial planting style. The naturalistic look may seem effortless, but it is not easy to pull off successfully. So often, one year’s harmonious scheme becomes next year’s brawl, as tough plants take over, delicate ones die out, and weeds creep in when no-one is looking. This book equips the reader with the information needed for crowd control in perennial plantings, explaining the ecology, behaviour and mechanics of the most suitable varieties. There are extracts from some of Oudolf’s plans, including snippets from his famous New York High Line planting scheme.

Dream Plants CoverFor serious planting designers and students, a useful companion volume to the above is Piet Oudolf’s and Henk Gerritsen’s Dream Plants for the Natural Garden (Frances Lincoln, £20). First published in 1999 and reissued in paperback this year, it is a directory of 1,200 plants suitable for naturalistic gardens.

Encyclopedia of Garden Design CoverOf course, not everyone wants the space outside their door crammed with uninhibited perennials. It is a style that does not fit all gardens. For those searching for the right mood and structure for their patch, I can recommend The Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Garden Design (Dorling Kindersley, £25), edited by Chris Young. It is a complete guide to creating a garden, from conceiving and drawing a layout to laying paths, opening vistas and using plants for various effects.

Heritage Trees CoverI’ve also been enjoying Aubrey Fennell’s Heritage Trees of Ireland (The Collins Press, Eur 29.99), which pays homage to over a hundred of this island’s tallest, fattest, oldest, holiest, boldest and otherwise remarkable trees. Our moist and mild climate allows us to grow a greater diversity of trees than most places in the world. The pages of this book demonstrate it, depicting eucalyptus from Australia, redwoods from California, monkey puzzles from Chile, date palms from the Canaries, and a virtual woodland of other species.

ONce and Future PlanetOur Once and Future Planet, by Paddy Woodworth (University of Chicago Press, book: $35, e-book: $21; kennys.ie: €23.32) deals with restoration ecology, a subject that savvy gardeners should be aware of. Irish-harvested peat-based compost, for example, has helped turn our bogs to sterile tracts. Imagine if they were restored? Woodworth tackles this subject in one of his chapters, while Irish woodlands are the subject of another.

Other books that I have enjoyed this year, and have already written about, include Kate Bradbury’s The Wildlife Gardener: Creating a Haven for Birds, Bees and Butterflies (Kyle Books, £14.99), which Alan Titchmarsh rightly calls a “joyous book”, and Alex Mitchell’s The Rurbanite: Living in the Country without Leaving the City (Kyle Books, £16.99), a handbook for townies who yearn for the rural life while still holding onto their urban benefits.

An edited version of the above appeared in my weekly column in The Sunday Times on December 1st 2013

The final croak

September 30, 2013 § 10 Comments

A dark day in the sun

Lunch?  © Jane Powers

Lunch?
© Jane Powers

The heron ate my frogs.

Not “a heron”, but “the heron”.  In Ireland, serious threats are accorded the definite article: the fox, the blight, the whooping cough, and — on that fine day last spring — the heron.

Or rather, it was a fine day for the heron, but not so for the frogs. They had already had a stressful year. Spring had come early, and gone away again.  January was so mild that the frogs had spawned on the 7th (the earliest date yet in my twenty-one-year stint in this garden). They spawned again at the end of the month, and then, spring retreated and winter blew back in with flurries of sleet and snow.

When spring finally reappeared in March, they were in the pond again — glorious, tumbling bundles of fornicating frogs. I left them to their work, undisturbed by my camera. After the difficult start to the year, they deserved some privacy and peace. 

The heron thought otherwise.

My phone rang. It was a neighbour: “Are you looking out the window?”

No, I wasn’t (for once).

“There is a huge bird eating the frogs — like a crane or something. It’s amazing!”

I'll have this one. ©Jane Powers

“A crane or something” is eating the frogs
©Jane Powers

I was torn: should I reach for my camera, or should I shout at the dogs to scare off the intruder? A quick look out the window revealed that it wasn’t a crane (a very rare visitor to Ireland), but — as I suspected — a grey heron (Ardea cinerea), the largest heron in Europe, which is native to Ireland, Britain and much of Europe and to parts of Asia and Africa. My glance revealed also that it was too late for the frog, dangling darkly from the bird’s brutal bill, so I grabbed the camera.

My friend, the frog © Jane Powers

My late friend, the frog
© Jane Powers

I felt like a traitor towards the amphibians with whom I had shared many summer afternoons by the tiny pond, but I wanted the picture.  I am, after all, keen on wildlife, and here was wildlife — and wild death — happening right in front of my lens. Still, I felt affronted and angry. I had nurtured the frogs, thinking of them as “my” frogs, although they were nobody’s frogs but their own. But now, it was apparent, they were the heron’s.

Goodbye frog © Jane Powers

Goodbye, frog
© Jane Powers

The frog that was in the heron’s bill, and that would soon be in its stomach, was old enough to breed, so it was three or four years old. What a way to go. One minute in the throes of reproduction, and the next in the jaws of death.

I moved closer and closer to the heron. Was there a touch of annoyance in its golden, predator’s eye? Eventually, it unfolded its massive wings and flapped off to perch on a tree in a neighbouring garden, the frog still hanging from its bill.

Flying frog © Jane Powers

Flying frog
© Jane Powers

It swallowed it whole (and still alive?), and moved to the top of a swing set, perhaps contemplating its next move. Would it be able to cram in another frog? It was the heron’s own breeding season, so perhaps it was stocking up on food to regurgitate later for its chicks. A magpie arrived, sat next to it on the wooden bar, and then dive-bombed it several times. Maybe the magpie, a ruthless predator itself, was worried what might happen to its future offspring if the heron got too comfortable in this place.

 © Jane Powers

Magpie and heron: not friends
© Jane Powers 

The big bird came back to rest on the wall of my garden, but I saw it off too. I felt mean scaring it away, but it had already helped itself to several frogs. I thought it would probably be back before I managed to get some netting for the pond.

The most unpopular bird in the neighbourhood © Jane Powers

The most unpopular bird in the neighbourhood
© Jane Powers

And indeed it was: a while later it was swishing its yellow bill around in the weedy water, as if stirring a pot of porridge. After I had rigged up an unlovely wire grid over the pond — with room for songbirds and frogs to scoot under — the heron returned several times, puzzled at this barrier to its food source. It sat on the greenhouse roof (where it made a striking finial ornament), waiting to see if the wire mesh might somehow disappear. It didn’t. In making the pond inviting for the frogs, I felt I had a duty of care for them. The heron, I decided, could go somewhere else. 

Greenhouse ornament © Jane Powers

Greenhouse ornament
© Jane Powers

Totally Terrific Tomatoes

August 27, 2013 § 2 Comments

 Basket of tomatoes, grown by Nicky Kyle © Jane Powers

We’re looking at a very strange tomato. Reassuringly, it is red, but after that it departs from the modern standards of tomatokind. It is rumpled and bloated, erupting disconcertingly into small, globular lobes. It reminds me of a virus enlarged under an electron microscope. Organic gardener, Nicky Kyle, says “It’s the most difficult tomato you could ever grow: it splits as soon as you look at it, it only produces one flush of fruit, and the plant looks as if it’s been sprayed with weedkiller, because it’s all twigs and no leaves!”

So why on earth is she growing it, and why am I carefully saving the seed from the unlovely individuals she gave me to bring home? Because, as she points out, when you taste it, “you forgive it everything”. It is sweet, full and ketchuppy — and early too. Those nearly leafless stems allow the sun to ripen the fruit much faster than other tomato varieties.

Tomato 'Latah' © Jane Powers

Tomato ‘Latah’   © Jane Powers

The tomato in question, ‘Latah’, is just one of over 100 cultivars that will be on show at the 2nd annual Totally Terrific Tomato Festival next Sunday at Rolestown Garden Centre, outside Swords. Nicky Kyle, an avid tomato grower for the last three-and-a-half decades, conceived the idea of the event, while Michael Connolly and his son, John, supply the venue. The festival, which attracted hundreds of visitors last year, is a celebration of all things tomato. There will be competitions for best quality, heaviest and ugliest tomatoes, best tomato-based recipe, best tomato grown by an under-12, and best vegetable basket. There will also be tomato-based foods, a farmers’ market, and other wholesome delights. Matthew Jebb, director of the National Botanic Gardens, will be talking tomatoes, as will Tanguy de Toulgoët of Dunmore Country School in Durrow, Co Laois.

Tomato 'Persimmon', grown by MIchael Connolly at Rolestown Garden Centre © Jane Powers

Tomato ‘Persimmon’, grown by MIchael Connolly
© Jane Powers

Home-grown tomatoes, as well as being good to eat and not too difficult to grow, give an almost cartoon-like demonstration of genetic diversity. There are hundreds of varieties available to the home gardener, from the little red ‘Gardener’s Delight’ and orange ‘Sungold’ to the great beefy beefsteaks ‘Black from Tula’ and ‘White Queen’. There are tomatoes that look like other fruits: ‘Orange Banana’, ‘Yellow Pear’, ‘Persimmon’, ‘Orange Strawberry’, and ‘Yellow Currant’ and tomatoes that appear to be made of glossy mahogany (‘Cherokee Chocolate’) and polished, black ebony (‘Indigo Rose’). Tomatoes, in short, are some of the most intriguing and appealing fruits known to man. The fact, that they are fruits, but are often thought of as vegetables only adds to their fascination.

The most immediate reason to grow them, though, is flavour. Supermarket tomatoes are getting better all the time, but they still cannot compete with the sun-warmed explosion of squelchy deliciousness that is the just-picked tomato.

Tomato 'Black Sea Man', grown by Michael Connolly at Rolestown Garden Centre © Jane Powers

Tomato ‘Black Sea Man’, grown by Michael Connolly
© Jane Powers

When I visit Rolestown Garden Centre to look at Michael’s twenty varieties of tom, coming along nicely in their pots, Nicky Kyle has brought a huge basket of her own, grown in her north county Dublin polytunnels, for us to try. We work our way through about a dozen kinds, but the more subtly-flavoured varieties are drowned out by the big guns such as ‘Black Sea Man’ — which is deep and resonant, like a good Chateauneuf de Pape. We have only water to cleanse our palates, and we should have had bread or cream crackers. Or, as Michael suggests: “You could do it like cheese, and have the mild ones first.”

Nonetheless, we have a whale of a time. The different colours, textures, smells and — of course — tastes are a treat to so many of the senses. These are tomatoes that you will never find for sale, except occasionally at gourmet shops and farmers’ markets. Factors such as their odd shapes, irregular sizes, soft skins and uncertain yields make them impractical for commercial growers and supply chains.

“Genetic diversity is being dangerously eroded all the time by industrial food production,” says Nicky.  “It’s important to preserve old varieties and good new ones too, in case those genes are needed in future breeding programmes for some unknown pest or disease which may hit us with climate change or other threat.”

Heirloom tomatoes, grown by Nicky Kyle © Jane Powers

Heirloom tomatoes, grown by Nicky Kyle
© Jane Powers

Tomatoes also have human stories attached. The heavy beefsteak ‘Mortgage Lifter’, for example, was bred by M.C. Byles in West Virginia in the 1930s. The proceeds from his sales of tomato plants paid off his $6,000 mortgage. ‘Amish Paste’, which makes ambrosial sauces, is an heirloom variety from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. Europe has its share of heritage toms too: with eastern countries being particularly fertile. ‘Black Krim’, ‘Black from Tula’ and (surprisingly), ‘Paul Robeson’ are all from Russia.

As Nicky Kyle says, growing your own tomatoes is “in some way preserving our social history too. In the past so many people took the trouble to save these old varieties and pass them down to us. I feel we owe it to them to keep them going.”

The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival: 11am–5pm is  Sunday, September 1st at Rolestown Garden Centre, Swords, Co Dublin. Satnav: 53.48268, -6.29783

Tomato 'Ananas Noire' grown by Nicky Kyle © Jane Powers

Tomato ‘Ananas Noire’ grown by Nicky Kyle
© Jane Powers

 Let’s talk tomatoes

Nicky Kyle’s website is a generous compendium of information on organic growing. Her “Tomato Report 2012” includes a review of the best varieties for Irish home-growers.

Let’s go to Laois

Tanguy de Toulgoët’s half-day course on autumn in the garden takes place on September 28th at Dunmore Country School, just outside Durrow. Subjects include planning, compost, rose care and rotation. Eur 50. Booking essential. Tanguy also gives individual gardening lessons in your own garden. See dunmorecountryschool.ie for details.

An edited version of this blog entry appeared in my gardening column in The Sunday Times

Here’s the Plot: Balbriggan Community Allotments

June 21, 2013 § 4 Comments

It’s May when I visit the new Balbriggan Community Allotments, but it’s cold, with a wicked northwest wind blasting across the six acre site. Exposure is often a problem with new allotment schemes, and this one, which opened in February, is no exception. On former agricultural land with little shelter, and half a kilometre from the sea, it gets weather from all sides. The new plot holders are resourceful types, though, and most have erected windbreaks of polypropylene netting around their domains. When the sun shines, the green mesh catches and multiplies the light, sending a shimmering zig zag of iridescence across the plots.

Today, however, the sky above north county Dublin is in an operatic mood, building up angry, inky clouds and furiously tossing down cascades of icy water. I seek refuge in the polytunnel of Caítríona and John Redmond, but the rain battering on the plastic skin is so loud we can barely hear our voices.

Their tunnel, newly erected on their ten by twenty metre plot, is one of a growing number at the site. Every week another one pops up, like a giant mushroom on the landscape. In these early days, while the hedges and trees that will eventually diffuse the wind are still in their infancy, the protection that the polyethylene-covered hoop-houses afford is very welcome. “I sold all the baby gear to get this!” explains Caítríona. “I said: ‘no more kids: let’s get a polytunnel instead.’ ” So they did.

They’ve had it less than a month, but already there are crops luxuriating in its cocoon of warmth and stillness: cabbages, purple sprouting broccoli, tomatoes, herbs. There are more edibles planted outside in the heavy clay soil that they have amended with compost and manure. Growing food is a serious undertaking for them. Only John, who works as a bus driver, has paid employment, and there are five mouths to feed. Caítríona was made redundant after the birth of her first child, four years ago — despite the fact that just a couple of years previously she had won an award for “Irish PA of the Year”.

© Jane Powers

She has since put her organisational and diplomatic skills to good use, volunteering with local community projects, and working as the chair of the allotments committee. She is one of many people here who has invested much time and energy into the plots, which are rented from Fingal County Council. Fingal Leader Partnership organised contractors to do the structural work on condition that this was matched by input from the new allotmenteers. Accordingly, the lining out of the plots, and the erecting of the post-and-wire fencing was all carried out by volunteers. There are 211 plots, in three sizes: 50, 100 and 200 square metres (with a rent of €1 per square metre per year). The community orchard of plums, cherries and heirloom Irish apples was likewise planted by plot-holders.

The spirit of communal endeavour pervades the place. Tools and knowledge are freely shared. “Nobody here is a food expert, or a growing expert,” says Caítríona, “but we’re learning from one another.”

An educational area — with polytunnel, raised beds, and compost bins — will be the venue for training courses offered by local horticulturists. Some of the plot-holders will also receive training as master composters through the EPA’s Stop Food Waste initiative, while others have already been to a pig-rearing course at Oldfarm in Tipperary.

The herd of five Tamworths arrived a few hours before my visit, and the sleek rusty-brown bonhams are bouncing around in one half of their two-acre paddock beyond the allotments. They are owned by a ten-strong syndicate: in late August, when the pigs are slaughtered, each of the members will receive their half share.

There is much industry evident in the rectangular lots: in one corner, John Dervan from east Galway is instructing his son in the precise art of digging traditional vegetable ridges, while Mark Mooney, who works in the zoo, is making a fascinating shed from 16 reclaimed palettes and a pair of salvaged windows.

© Jane Powers

Beginner gardener Aoife McGee, a primary school teacher, has made all her own raised beds from scaffolding planks, and is working in her polytunnel among dozens of healthy seedlings. She whispers that she hasn’t a clue what she is doing, but she is a natural and intelligent gardener. I envy her and her fellow plot-holders the years of growing ahead of them in this fertile field of fruit, vegetables and goodwill.

© Jane Powers

To enquire about a plot at Balbriggan Community Allotments, click on http://www.fingalcoco.ie and search for “allotments”, or telephone the Parks Division at: 01 8905600.

An edited version of this blog entry appeared in my gardening column in The Sunday Times

The Dry(ing) Season

June 7, 2013 § 31 Comments

This year, spring made it only by the skin of its teeth, hastily scrabbling together all its flowers and flinging them into a heap in May.

Summer, however has been exemplary so far (this week, that is) and has delivered one of my favourite sights:

I am both mesmerised and exhilarated by the sight of clothes drying on the line. I spent a lot of time today gazing upon my own happy contraption — and I was reminded that I have a page in my book, The Living Garden, devoted to this excellent device. I hope you don’t mind if I hang it up here to air for a bit. (The tone is quite crusading — and slightly at odds with this memorably sunny day — but there are some things about which I feel strongly.)

A plea for the clothes line

Banned from some housing developments and shunned by people who seem to think that laundry is indecent, the poor clothes line has sunk to the same status as a messy drunk. This is horribly unfair. Those who use clothes lines are doing a service to the environment by keeping carbon from entering the atmosphere.

Dryers are avid energy guzzlers, having both a heating element and a motor. They release between one and two kilos of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere with each drying cycle. The clothes line, on the other hand, contributes zero carbon and is easier on your clothes (all that lint in the dryer is the fabric wearing away). And the bracing, fresh, ozonic smell of clothes just brought in from the line is an instant mood elevator. What’s more, sunlight and fresh air are potent bleaching and disinfecting agents — something our mothers and all the mothers before them have known ever since, countless centuries ago, woman first washed a length of cloth and hung it to dry in the sun.

Yet the clothes line is often ignored by garden designers, and forgotten about by those who are creating their own gardens. Usually, it is either forgone, or is shoved in awkwardly. So, if you’re planning your garden, give a tiny bit of thought to this greenest of laundry devices.

To my mind, the neatest way of drying clothes is to stretch a line (or two or more) across the garden when you need it, and to take it down when it is not in use. You can buy a retractable affair, with parallel lines that wind into a protective housing, or you can simply unhook the line from one side of your garden, and roll it into an unobtrusive coil that hangs against a wall or pole. Rotary dryers are more conspicuous, and tend to suffer from the same injuries as umbrellas in a storm. If you opt for one, make sure there is enough room for sheets to blow freely without snagging on plants, or brushing against walls.

I love clothes lines. They remind me of my fellow mortals’ daily lives; they are the flags and pennants of a human community. I asked for (and received) a clothes line for a recent birthday. The sight of our laundry flying in the breeze while being magically freshened by sunlight and oxygen always makes me happy.

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