Where are they now? (Those serviceable plants we all used to grow.)

October 21, 2014 § 3 Comments

One of the ten candidates for the Royal Horticultural Society’s “Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Centenary” last year was Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’. Although it didn’t win (the prize went instead to Geranium ‘Rozanne’), I was delighted to see the perennial wallflower on the list, as it has nearly dropped out of sight in recent years.

Geranium 'Rozanne'

Geranium ‘Rozanne’ © Jane Powers

Plants go in and out of fashion, and the slightly dumpy and ungainly character of ‘Bowles’s Mauve’ does not fit in with today’s trend for tall and airy, meadowesque perennials. Nonetheless, it is a plant that should be in your garden, if you can give it a bit of sun. It makes a shrubby mound about two or three feet tall and wide, with glaucous, evergreen foliage. Its racemes of cross-shaped, purple flowers are borne spasmodically during much of the year, with the main flush between February and July. Cut back all the spent stems in July, and it will start banging out flowers again after a month or two. Bees and butterflies love it, and slugs don’t bother much with it. A hard winter might kill it, but it is easy to take insurance cuttings any time in spring or summer. It is one of those plants that are known as “good doers”. They’re not fancy or rare, but they are robust and reliable, and do their job uncomplainingly.

I’d like to recommend five other dependable doers that we don’t see enough of these days. You won’t necessarily find all of them in garden centres, but they turn up at plant sales, or in older gardens. Most gardeners are generous types, and will usually hand over cuttings or small basal shoots with a bit of root attached. These last items, incidentally, are known as “Irishman’s cuttings”.

Bergenia 'Wintermärchen' and friends © Jane Powers

Bergenia ‘Wintermärchen’ and friends
© Jane Powers

Bergenia is another plant that used to be better known and better loved. Twenty years ago it was in every Irish garden, but now, according to one nursery-owner, “we couldn’t even give it away.” The big, leathery, evergreen foliage confers on it the common name of “elephant’s ears”. The pachydermic leaves make it quite a coarse plant, but it is just the thing if you are looking for groundcover for a difficult place. It is equally happy in sun or shade, and in good or poor soil. There are about a hundred varieties, but only an expert is able to tell the difference between many of them. The sprays of flowers, which range from nearly white to deepest pink, are hoisted up on thick stems in mid spring. Bergenia pays its way in winter when some varieties (those with B. purpurascens in their parentage) become suffused with a chocolatey-maroon hue. When dusted with white frost particles they look delicious. My favourite cultivar for the chilly months is ‘Wintermärchen’, sometimes sold as Winter Fairy Tales. It has slightly smaller leaves than some, and excellent colour in both leaf and flower. The whitest blooms belong to ‘Beethoven’, while the variety ‘Silberlicht’, which plantswoman Beth Chatto grows in her famous gravel garden in Essex, is almost as pale.

London pride (Saxifraga x urbium) is a member of the same family as bergenia, and is another faithful character in what I think of as the “nice old lady plants” department. It has smallish rosettes of spoon-shaped evergreen leaves, each delicately zig-zagged around the margins, as if it has been cut out with a tiny pinking shears. The lacy, starry, shell-pink flowers are borne throughout the summer on foot-high, wiry stems. It was traditionally used in rockeries, or for edging paths, and is happy in just about any kind of soil.

Another trusty, old-fashioned plant is Libertia grandiflora, with dark-green, strappy foliage and tall stems of small, cup-shaped, white flowers in early summer. It is a little winter-tender in cold areas, but sturdy enough in most gardens. If you are a poultry keeper, then you’ll be pleased to know that this is one of the few perennials that is goose-proof. Geese are among the worst plant pests known to man.

Sisyrinchium striatum

Sisyrinchium striatum © Jane Powers

Also in the strappy leaves department is the summer-blooming Sisyrinchium striatum, which has upright fans of grey-green foliage and batons of small yellow flowers. It is an easy-going addition to gravel gardens, seeding itself about each year. After flowering, the foliage may become blackened and unsightly. Don’t be afraid to pull out the entire plant when this happens, as its replacements will be already be developing at its feet. The cultivar ‘Aunt May’ has variegated leaves and cream-coloured flowers.

Vinca major © Jane Powers

Vinca major
© Jane Powers

My final, nearly forgotten and nearly bomb-proof plant is the periwinkle. There are seven species of Vinca, with several dozen cultivars shared among them. Almost all form evergreen spreading mats by way of long, stringy stems bearing pairs of ovate leaves and pretty blue, mauve or white stars. I like the plain green-leaved V. minor and V. major, but for those who like stripy plants there are scads of variegated kinds. As with the other plants I’ve mentioned here, it doesn’t mind poor soil or a negligent gardener.

What are other sterling doers and golden oldies can we add to the list above? Please weigh in below.

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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

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.

The Month of Froguary

February 22, 2012 § 23 Comments

I’ve been in full voyeuristic mode recently: peeping out of an upstairs window with binoculars, and then, when the moment is right, rushing out the door. My camera is raised in the shooting position as I barrel down the steps and I’m firing it off rapidly, papparazzi-style. But, mostly I’m drawing a blank. Or, if I’m lucky, getting something like this:

Just sittin'

Which is nice, because it’s always cheering to see photos of frogs lolling around, nonchalantly taking the air. Or, I might get something like this, which is also nice, because it’s arty and amusing, and it gives you a warm feeling about this particular character:

'Ere wot you lookin' at?

What I’m really after, though, is a good, juicy photo of frogs mating. But that’s not easy. Although there are at least two dozen amphibians making whoopee in our tiny garden pond, they are desperately shy. Oh, I can see them bashing away and the pond rippling like a bubbling cauldron when I’m at a safe distance. But as soon as I get within a few paces, there is a split second of furious detangling and rapidly churning water. And then, they’re all gone. Except for a few innocent heads poking out of the water.

Frogs are impossible to sneak up on. Their bulging eyes give them near all-round vision. And our pond is not the most secure place. While crouching behind the Bergenia ‘Wintermärchen’ and hoping to get a better photo, I am assailed by an eye-stinging pong of fox urine. Our neighbourhood foxes, I imagine, are partial to the occasional frog dinner, and have been patrolling the garden more than usual.

What I saw through the Bergenia

So, I decide to leave them in peace and to sit a while where they can’t see me, and I can’t see them, but I can listen to their fluty croaking. Actually, the sound they make is far more melodic than a croak. It’s more a soothing, sonorous purr.

For me, watching the frogs may be entertaining and thrilling, but every year, after trying yet again to get photos of them in flagrante, I have to remind myself that this annual mating spree is a crucial part of their lives. Each female Rana temporaria produces around two thousand eggs, and she may mate with many males (often several at a time) in a process called amplexus. But only a few of her blobby eggs will reach adult froghood, three years down the line. Along the way, most of the tadpoles will be eaten by other water dwellers, or even each other (a gruesome sight to behold when you’re idly gazing into the depths of the pond). And baby froglets — no bigger than a pea with legs — perish if they can’t quickly reach a nearby cool and leafy sanctuary when they first venture out of the water.

So, I’m hanging up my frog-shooting camera until next year, when I’ll probably try again. My best bit of spawnography yet was taken two springs ago. Here it is, an uncommonly busy bundle of common frogs.

"If you could just move your flipper over there a bit..."

Springuary Days

January 17, 2012 § 18 Comments

At this point in January, it really should be winter. But the balmy weather has fooled plants and animals into thinking that we’ve moved into spring. So, I’m re-naming this month Springuary, the first month of Sprinter.

The blackbirds and the greenfinches have been dawn-chorussing for days now. They crank up at around 7am, which is a much more civilised hour than the rowdy 4.45am reveille in May. And occasionally, I hear a lone blackbird practicing its wobbly notes in the dead of night. Apparently the young males take advantage of these quiet hours when there is no other competition: they can perfect their warbles and riffs without it turning into territorial oneupmanship (or oneupbirdship). A pair of collared doves — a species that can mate for life, and mate all year round — are looking decidedly frisky, in a beige and puritanical sort of way.

Winter redpolls, still visiting

The little redpolls, who arrive in winter and depart in spring, are still visiting. So there is a jumble of birdlife at the feeders.

On the floral front, there is a crazy collision of seasons. The snowdrop, Wordsworth’s “venturous harbinger of Spring, and pensive monitor of fleeting years”, is flowering weeks early, while the last rose of last summer, a long-blooming Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ is still hanging on palely. Shasta daisies and hardy geraniums are also popping out the occasional, surprise flower.

Ranunculus ficaria 'Brazen Hussy'

Many plants that normally bloom in mid or late spring are already flowering. Among them is the little bronze-leaved celandine, Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’, discovered in an English wood by the late Christoper Lloyd. And, on our boundary, the evergreen Ceanothus ‘Trewithen Blue’ has been blooming for months. Usually it takes a break in winter before throwing its energy into a proper late-spring display.

I have to admit that although it is fascinating, I find this hodge-podge of a season disturbing. I wonder am I alone?  What’s flowering in your garden that shouldn’t be?

Ceanothus 'Trewithen Blue'

And now, two bits of exciting news:

1. My book, The Living Garden: a place that works with nature, is to be published in Germany by Verlag Freies Geistesleben in 2013. I’m very happy about this, especially since it is a nod to my many German ancestors, who account for at least three-quarters of my blood, and who enjoy euphonious names such as Seberger, Muller, Strobel, Zilberstorff, Routzong and Wahl.

2. I have a new job, as gardening correspondent for the Irish edition of the Sunday Times. I’ve enjoyed the last few column-free months, but it’s time to put on my opinionated garden lady bonnet again. Next weekend, on January 22nd, the Sunday Times is launching a new forty-page section, called “Sunday”, which will feature Irish content exclusively. So, besides my weekly gardening spot, there will be restaurant and wine reviews, cookery (from Mary Carney, winner of MasterChef Ireland), a motoring column, outdoors and lifestyle features and loads of other things — all from Ireland. I’m quite excited. At a time when most newspapers are slashing and burning, it’s very heartening that the Sunday Times has taken on a raft of new contributors (anyone know what is the collective noun for journalists? A cliché of journalists?)

The Sunday section is available exclusively in Ireland (not in the UK, alas). Why not stroll into your local newsagent next Sunday, January 22nd, and give it a go?

**UPDATE** I’ve just heard that the Sunday section will be online on the Times website. Hurrah!

Some Seasonal Twiggery Pokery, and Ghosts of Christmas Wreaths Past

December 18, 2011 § 8 Comments

The secret to making a long-lasting and handsome wreath for your door is to use a ring made of florist’s foam as the base. This annoys me, as I’m a traditionalist, make-it-from-scratch kind of person. In my ideal world, all the raw materials for such decorations would be available in my garden, or in that of a friend, or by foraging in a wood. Of course, manmade stuff such as wire and ribbons is fine for frameworks and trimmings (and can be re-used again and again) — but floral foam is a single-use petroleum-based substance, a completely unrecyclable affront to the planet.

Dodonaea wreath

But, let’s take the creation above: see how the sprigs (of Dodonaea, or purple hop bush) flow around so gracefully? Well, if you had to affix each one individually to a wire frame, or stick them into a moss-filled donut (as used in the better British gardening magazines), you’d be days trying to get such an agreeable effect. But with your floral foam base (soaked first in a basin of water), you can just shove the bunches of leaves into the material. And, aside from the odd waif and stray that tumbles out on a windy day, they stay put. Fill in the outside perimeter of the ring first with sprigs of foliage, then the inner wall, and lastly, the face. In the wreath above I also added willow (an orangey-stemmed Salix alba), birch (brushed with leftover magnolia emulsion paint), skimmia berries and silver-sprayed lily seedpods.

You can also make a twiggy ring from willow (as below), or from dogwood, birch or other pliable stems, and use that as your base. Tie or weave in lengths of ivy, bunches of berries, dried hydrangea flowers, or whatever you’re having yourself.

Ivy-clad willow ring

The ring is pretty, in a Thomas Hardy sort of way. It is perfect for the cow byre — or for a garden shed, or for a wall decoration on a porch. But it lacks the plump sumptuousness that we like to see on a front door wreath. (The twiggy base, though, will last for a year or two, and you can use it as kindling when you’re tired of it.)

Variegated pittosporum wreath with skimmia berries

Skimmia berries are excellent fodder for Christmas wreaths and garlands: birds don’t eat them, so you can be sure of finding some on shrubs in December. You may need to wire two or three bunches together to make a cluster large enough to make an impression. If you don’t have a skimmia bush (and we got rid of ours shortly after I made the above wreath), you can buy hypericum berries from a florist, or use any bright berry or fruit. Christmas wreaths need a touch of gaudiness to bring cheer to this dark season, so don’t try to be too sophisticated and monochromatic. Our trusty tin of magnolia paint was wheeled out again for the birch twigs here, and for the ears of wheat — which I’d grown during the summer.

Dodonaea encore, with Casuarina cunninghamiana

Oh, look! It’s the painted birch again — but really, the pale, wispiness does help to lift the whole thing. Chillies offer up spots of red, while gold and silver love-in-a-mist (Nigella damescena) provide the glitzy bits. Our old friend the Dodonaea is making its final appearance (the wind uprooted it a few months later), and the fine froth of green foliage spiralling around the edge is a very rare (at least in Ireland and Britain) tree: Casuarina cunninghamiana. It’s dead too: killed by the Big Freeze of 2010. Its wood, however, is now nicely seasoned, and has been burning steadily in the stove behind me as I write this post.

I do like to be beside the seaweed

November 7, 2011 § 13 Comments

The recent gales on the east coast of Ireland dumped inches of rain onto the land. Much of it ended up as floods — yet another one of those “once-in-a-hundred-years” disasters that have been occurring with alarming regularity during the past decade.

But let’s talk about that in another post. Instead, I’d like to write about seaweed — for that was the silver lining, as it were, that arrived with those dark cloudy gales. The movie below contains some energetic waves, which were laden with seaweed, although you can see only a little of it. (I’ve included some dogs to liven things up instead.)

Seaweed has been used as a fertiliser and soil conditioner in coastal regions for as long as man has been growing food. In Ireland it was added to the the poor, stony soil on the Aran Islands, and all along the western seaboard. It is especially good for sandy and light soils, as it contains gelatinous substances (alginates) that retain moisture and help bind soil particles together. The Victorians used great quantities of it, often burning it first, and applying the ash. It was recommended especially for asparagus, which originated as a coastal plant. It is still used by some people for vegetables, particularly potatoes.

Perfect for potatoes

Scotsman Alan Romans, who is the King of Potatoes in this part of the world, has used it in the past for his spuds. When I interviewed him a few years ago, he told me: “Seaweed is one of the best potato fertilisers. The carbon-nitrogen ratio is absolutely perfect; it breaks down almost instantly into compost at something like 1 to 14. If I were going to use it now, I would trowel in a seed potato at the right distance along the line, I would lay the seaweed on the surface and put a spadeful of earth on it to keep from drying out. Potatoes are quite happy to grow through organic fertiliser, and take the nutrients.”

Back in Ireland, in west Cork, our adopted Queen of Vegetables, Joy Larkcom, is a great fan of seaweed. She and husband Don Pollard collect it after it is washed onto a nearby beach by strong southwesterlies (see Graham Rice’s blog post here about it). “The question I am most often asked”, says Joy, “is whether you wash the salt off before using it. We don’t. We put it straight onto the ground. It disappears quite quickly, so you need a four-to-six-inch layer. I think it may deter slugs when it gets crispy.”

On Joy’s beach, the seaweed sometimes accumulates in piles as high as a person — which means it’s nicely gathered together for collection.

The long seaweed walk

On our east coast, the sea is less obliging, and one has to travel a longer distance to fill one’s bags. Collecting can be heavy work, so if the seaweed is thinly spread on the shingle or sand, walk off some distance with your empty bags and start filling them there, working your way back the way you came. You don’t want to find yourself lugging an increasingly bulging and heavy bag in the wrong direction from your car. (I dream about fitting panniers to the dogs’ backs, like those creels that Irish donkeys used to wear. I don’t think the dogs would find that as amusing as I do.)

Perseus and Medusa go to the seaside

A word of advice: don’t harvest seaweed that is growing on rocks — you need a licence for that, and a good reason for doing it. Only pick the stuff you find washed up on the beach. And, of course, be careful about disturbing wildlife, and trampling all over a fragile ecosystem.

I can’t end this post without mentioning seaweed baths. Taking a seaweed bath is one of those things you should try at least once in your life. I’ve had several, at various places in Ireland. The best are in Sligo, right next to the sea, where you can hear the waves as you lie entwined in algae. One of these businesses is at Strandhill,  and the owner’s father grows champion vegetables on his organic farm. Isn’t that nice? You can lie in a seaweed bath and dream of giant leeks.

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