Going forth and scaling new horizons

October 15, 2011 § 21 Comments

This week, my own monument to the past came down. My office had had shelves and shelves of Irish Times newspapers and magazines — each of which contained my gardening columns and other articles.

In the 15 years that I was the paper’s gardening correspondent, and in the preceding two years where I regularly wrote about gardens, I rarely seemed to find the time to cut out my clippings and file them away. I’d have bursts of archiving on quiet days, but the mounds of paper continued to expand, hopping down onto the floor under the bookshelves, and depriving the dogs of their favourite bolthole during thunderstorms and fireworks explosions. In the days since I wrote my final column, which you can read here, I’ve been snipping and clipping, and working my way back from the latter end of 2011 to the beginning of 1995.

I have been rolling through time at the rate of about one year for every two hours of paper cutting and filing. Although I’ve written over seven hundred gardening columns, and hundreds of other pieces, distinct memories come floating up from many of the snippets of newsprint. An interview with the late and marvellously haughty Ambrose Congreve summons a vision of his rakishly red socks, echoed by the faded crimson of Burke’s Peerage close at hand; a piece on trees recalls the absurdity of sitting at a boardroom table while executives from a semi-state organisation briefed me on what they thought should go into the article; a column about a garden in Wexford brings back the day that started badly with a missed train and a pain in my belly, but that ended with my making a particularly special friend.

The Bay Garden: where pain ends, and friendship begins

Working for a newspaper, even when you’re a garden writer, is all about deadlines, and fitting into a monstrously huge and complex machine. Everyone is on a schedule. So the perky Christmas gift article from 1998 was written while our old dog lay fatally injured, waiting for the vet to come and end his life; and a lively piece on Airfield Garden was finished off while I dealt with the news that my father had been found dead on his kitchen floor four thousand miles away. In the last few days, the rapid and continual procession of memories has nearly overwhelmed me.

But there were many things that made me laugh too. Sometimes subeditors (who work under huge pressure) would have to compose headlines without seeing the photo that accompanied the writing. So, one column featured a portrait of one of Ireland’s most self-important gardeners with the headline “Our plump country cousins” (which was actually a quote about plants lifted from the text), and another (also extracting a fragment about plants) shouted “A home for the ugly duckling” under the picture of a formidable lady gardener. She, I’m glad to say, was a good sport about this newspaperistic misfortune. Headline-writing is often like calligraphy, quick and instinctual: “Hosta la vista, baby”, “Sow what?”, “Swards at the ready” and so on. Some headlines suggest themselves automatically, and have muscled into my 15 years of columns more than once, “Scaling new heights”, for example — usually applied to climbing plants.

© Jane Powers

Scaling new heights

A photo that I took of the dog above when she was a puppy, by the way, provided one of the magazine’s most popular covers. Lily became a pin-up girl all over Ireland, and also helped the Irish Times win a printing award in 2005. Our printers put “her” cover at the top of the pile, as they knew it would catch the judges’ attention.

Best in show

I was sorry to give up my gardening column, but now I’m a little relieved too. Gardening used to be something I did to free my soul and level my mind, but when I had to deliver copy every week, my relationship with it changed. I found it hard to set foot outside without feeling I should be taking photos, writing notes, or working out a better way of explaining something. I was seeing my garden at second hand: through the camera lens, or in chunks of 850 or 1200 words. And then, there was the curse of Ireland’s changeable weather. Because copy is written days (and sometimes weeks) in advance I would find myself praying that a horrible drought or fierce frost would continue so that my column would not be out of date when it eventually appeared.

All this may sound as if I’ve given up writing about gardens. But, no, I am working flat out on my second book — which will be published in 2013 (you can read about my first book here and here). And, as before, I’ll be popping up in Irish and British publications. I’ll also be here, on One Bean Row, so I hope you’ll drop in often — or better still, subscribe by email (at the top right corner of the home page) so you never miss a post.

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He pulped my photography project

September 27, 2011 § 11 Comments

A couple of days ago I deposited a fine basket of freshly-harvested tomatoes on the kitchen table. “I think I’ll photograph those,” I thought, and wandered off to get my camera in a languid Sunday-morning kind of way. When I returned half an hour later the tomatoes were gone, and my husband — all business and efficiency — was sealing the lid on a mammoth container of gazpacho, and popping it into the fridge.

This tomato-filled basket is not the one in question, but is from the abundantly-tomatoed Glebe Gardens in West Cork.

So, I was going to write about tomato-growing here, and this year’s favourite varieties (‘Dzintare Lasite’ and ‘Black Cherry’). But now I think we need to talk about gazpacho.

'Dzintare Lasite' from Irish Seed Savers Association and 'Black Cherry' from Thompson & Morgan

Cold tomato soup. The idea is deeply unappetising, especially if you’ve been brought up on warm tomato soup — as many of us have. But, gazpacho, let me tell you, is a delightful thing. It tastes zingy and refreshing, with all the flavours and aromas of summer, but it fills you up in the most comforting way, like a winter stew. Although it is classic Spanish fare, its origins are Arabic, and its name means “soaked bread” (bread is the ingredient that makes it so filling). It is an ancient dish, and has traditionally filled the bellies of people across the Mediterranean. Hadrian’s Roman army had gazpacho among their rations.

A bowl of gazpacho (and some tomatoes that got away)

The best recipe I know — and the only one we use in the house — is from Rena Salaman’s Mediterranean Vegetable Cookery, which is no longer in print. It was published in 1987 by Collins. (A year later, it was one of the first presents I gave the man who would become my husband — and who would later purée my tomato photography project into gazpacho.)  I hope that Rena Salaman does not mind my repeating her instructions here. All her recipes work, and need no adjusting. They are perfect, straight off the page. (Because we’re a little lazy, we don’t peel the tomatoes. We often use quite a few yellow ones, so the soup is paler and less acidic than if made with red ones. We also add chilli.)

There is talk of an Indian summer in the UK and Ireland, and gazpacho is exactly the kind of food for those last-blast sunny days.

Rena Salaman’s Gazpacho (serves 4–6)
675g (1.5 lb) sweet, ripe tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and chopped
Piece of cucumber, 9cm (3in) long, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 large sweet pepper, green or red, cored, deseeded and coarsely chopped
110g (4oz) crustless bread soaked in water and squeezed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
425ml (15fl oz) cold water
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Mix the tomatoes, cucumber, garlic, sweet pepper and bread with half the water in a food processor or liquidiser, and liquidise in batches. With the machine still running, slowly add the olive oil and vinegar. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and empty the soup into a large bowl. Slowly add the remaining water, stirring until it has all been incorporated. Cover and chill for 1–2 hours.

Tomatoes: 'Polen', 'Dzintare Lasite', 'Tangella' and 'Black Cherry'

Life on Rozanne

September 19, 2011 § 25 Comments

One of the best hardy geraniums is ‘Rozanne’. It has large purple flowers that bloom from early summer until autumn. In a good year, it performs for six months. It is a tremendous sprawler, and isn’t recommended for small gardens. Even though we don’t really have the room, we grow it in several of our borders. We control its conquistadorial tendencies by hacking chunks off the clumps — which is really a form of extreme dead-heading. It looks frightened for a few days, and then it quickly pulls itself together and produces a fresh flush of flowers.

Geranium 'Rozanne'

For years, ‘Rozanne’ was confused with the very similar ‘Jolly Bee’, and only gardeners-in-the-know professed to be able to tell the difference. One was more sprawly than the other. Or maybe not. [Warning: unless you have a burning desire to watch a nomenclatural tangle being unravelled, you might want to skip the next paragraph. But, do click on all the photos in this post: they’re quite interesting. I’ve a novel surprise for you at the end, as well.]

Both are hybrids of G. wallichianum ‘Buxton’s Variety’, with G. himalayense providing the other parent for the first, and G. shikokianum var. yoshiianum for the second. And both are patented plant varieties, which means that they have brought in wads of revenue for the patent holders — Blooms of Bressingham and Dutch breeder Marco Van Noort, respectively. However, in 2010, a court ruled that they were too similar to be distinguishable, and that ‘Jolly Bee’ should cease to exist as a separate variety — bad news for Van Noort, who would no longer receive plant breeder’s royalties. To confuse matters further — and such are the convolutions of plant nomenclature — the original name of ‘Rozanne’ is ‘Gerwat’ (the first appellation under which it was registered) although it is known as Rozanne® in the trade.

The thing that is rarely written about ‘Rozanne’ though (or ‘Jolly Bee’, for that matter), is that it is a complete hit with invertebrates. Honeybees, bumblebees, flies, hoverflies, ants and other small creatures flock to it, to drink its nectar and to pluck the bits of pollen that are tucked into its stamens.

Marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) collecting pollen

The marmalade fly (above) is one of the few hoverflies that actually eats pollen. Before ingesting the grains, it crushes them between its front legs (I nearly said “paws”, as I have a huge affection for this particular species and find it easy to get a little woolly about it).

‘Rozanne’ is sterile, that is, it produces no seed. This characteristic allows it to bloom for a very long period. Normally, a plant’s biological clock tells it to stop flowering when it has made enough seed to perpetuate itself, but a sterile plant has no “stop” for the blooming mechanism. It flowers until colder weather and lower light levels say it’s time — finally — to quit. So, the gooey amber pollen grains that you see stuck to the furry stigma below have fallen on barren ground, as it were.

Pollen grains on 'Rozanne'

I’ve noticed more insect varieties on ‘Rozanne’ than I have on any other plant in my garden. Here is a pretty common carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum):

Common carder bumblebee

In my patch (and in many other Irish gardens) it is the most frequent bumblebee visitor. One of its identifying features is its furry, ginger-coloured waistcoat. In sunny weather, the hairs can become bleached, turning it into a blonde bumbo. If you look closely while it is feeding, you’ll see that it has quite a long tongue. It is one of only two bee species that feeds on our native foxglove. The other is the garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum), which has the longest tongue of any bee in the UK and Ireland: 1.5 to 2 centimetres when at full stretch. It often leaves it extended when it is flying between foxglove blooms, as below:

Bombus hortorum sticks her tongue out at a foxglove

But back to ‘Rozanne’. It is also, as I mentioned earlier, very popular with flies. I’ve seen loads of different species visiting. I’m not sure of this one’s name (if there are any dipterists reading this, please do help), but it didn’t mind standing quietly and having its picture taken:

Fly sunbathing on Geranium 'Rozanne'

Let’s take a closer look at that:

What is THAT?

Yes, the fly is blowing a bubble. Slowly, slowly out and slowly, slowly in. I’m not sure why it does this, but I have read that it may aid food digestion. In any case, it was so focussed on bubble-blowing that it stayed perfectly still while it was having its portrait taken. Isn’t it lovely?

It’s a Jungle in There

July 28, 2011 § 10 Comments

This blog post, planned for weeks, was supposed to be a warm and cosy one, coming to you from my kitchen. It was going to be about growing and pickling my own chillies, something I’ve been doing for years.

Jalapeno chillies: perfectly pickled

However, this comfortable, domestic idea was swept aside when, after noticing that the chilli leaves were a little mottled, I started looking at them with a loupe. I suspected an infestation of red spider mite (which loves the hot dry conditions in our conservatory). This tiny pest is usually deterred by frequent misting with water — but not in this case, it seemed. A closer look was required.

When magnified eight times, the surfaces of the leaves showed themselves to be thronged with livestock. I knew that there would be plenty of aphids (those are easily seen with the naked eye), but I could not see a single red spider mite — minute eight-legged characters that look like the tiniest ticks imaginable. However, rambling between the aphids were small green sausages on legs. Thrips! I had thrips! A new pest! It was exciting and disgusting in equal measure.

I can’t show you a thrip, as they are too small for my camera lens to capture, but I can show you the damage that their larval sausages do, when they rasp away at the leaves with their mouthparts.

Mottled leaf: all is not well

I’ve nearly defeated them by spraying the afflicted plants regularly with insecticidal soap, an organic pesticide suitable for soft-bodied pests. I don’t use any sprays in the garden, as matters there are generally kept under control by the higher-ups on the food ladder eating the lower-downs. And I don’t want to harm any beneficial insects. But, indoors is a different environment. Pests increase rapidly in the heat, and I don’t have birds, hoverflies, ladybirds or other predators to keep order.

Or do I? Recent leaf inspections have shown an increasing number of mummified aphids. A few weeks ago, I had noticed one of these characteristic items, which look like bronze aphid statues, on a chilli plant that was a gift from organic grower Madeline McKeever at Brown Envelope Seeds.

Bronzed aphid (please do click for a larger image!)

Aphids such as this have been parasitised by a tiny wasp. The female injects an egg into an aphid, and when the larva hatches, it consumes the insect from the inside out. Next, it pupates inside the empty body, and finally, hatches out, leaving a neat round porthole where it exits. Females lay 100 to 300 eggs during their two-week adult phase.

Parasitic mini-wasp

The wasp is so small that it could be mistaken for a fungus fly, but it flits around the leaves of a plant, rather than above the compost or soil.

At present, on the chillies that I treated only once or twice with the insecticidal soap, there are aphid mummies all over the undersides of the leaves, like precious bronze decorations.

Chilli leaf studded with mummified aphids

This is far more exciting than thrips, which fortunately haven’t reached this side of the conservatory yet. While taking the above photos, I came across a fly on one of the chilli plants. It has nothing to do with this story, but here are two portraits anyway, as I think it is a fine-looking creature. In the first one, it is eating something on the faded flower (aphid honeydew, perhaps), and in the second, it is rubbing its “hands” together in that annoying way that flies have.

Honeydew, anyone?

That was lovely! Must fly!

Ménage à Trois (or even quatre)?

April 21, 2011 § 5 Comments

The dunnock is a small, brown bird that creeps about on the ground, foraging for insects and creepy-crawlies. Its plumage is drab and puritanical, and its movements, are — for the most part — those of a preoccupied old lady, shuffling down to the shops for a loaf of bread and a pint of milk.

The dunnock: "humble, homely and sober"

Its apparent modesty and decency prompted the Victorian ornithologist, the Reverend Frederick Orpen Morris, to preach to his congregation that they would do well to emulate the dunnock: “Unobtrusive, quiet and retiring, without being shy, humble and homely in its deportment and habits, sober and unpretending in its dress, while neat and graceful, the dunnock exhibits a pattern which many of a higher grade might imitate, with advantage to themselves and benefit to others through an improved example.”

F.O. Morris: worthy, but wrong

Morris was born in Ireland, near Cork, the son of a British admiral and his wife, Rebecca Orpen, who was the daughter of the vicar of Kelvargan, in Co Kerry. After attending Oxford and taking Holy Orders, Morris was posted to various parishes in Yorkshire. He was a serious amateur ornithologist and entomologist, publishing many essays and pamphlets, and editing and revising several books. Despite his great output and dedication, it is the quotation above that is most often wheeled out by writers today. And with some glee.

The dunnock is, in fact, anything but unobtrusive and retiring, and its habits are hardly humble or homely. The dunnock is — oh, Reverend Morris, if only you had known! — mad for sex. Arrangements where a female is mated with two males are not unusual. Or sometimes (less frequently) a male has two females. Or sometimes there is even a spot of avian swinging, where two pairs mix and match.

"Oh, look who is over there!"

I’m put in mind of this because for the past couple of weeks there has been a great amount of dunnock activity in our garden. And very little of it includes shuffling about on the ground looking for food. Instead, there are three birds dipping and diving, fluttering (and, I presume) flirting. The sexes look the same in this species, so it’s not easy to tell males and females apart. But, judging from the way that one bird (the beta male?) frequently skulks just out of sight, I suspect that we have the more usual dunnock ménage à trois of one female and two males.

Beta bides his time

According to N.B. Davies in Dunnock Behaviour and Social Evolution (Oxford University Press, 1992) females “made life difficult for an alpha male by actively attempting to escape his close attentions and by encouraging the beta male to mate!” And later he describes that “On several occasions I saw females hiding away with the beta male under a hedge or bush. When the alpha male came by searching for them, they crouched down and remained motionless until he had passed by.”

Why would the female dunnock want to mate with more than one male? Well, it seems that it’s for the survival of her brood. When a female is raising her chicks, a male will help to feed them only if he has copulated with her earlier. So, it makes sense for her to have two regular partners, even if it means scooting off into the bushes with Beta while Alpha is looking the other way.

"Hello, Reverend Morris!"

As for the males’ motives: obviously they want to mate with as many females as possible in order to ensure the survival of their genes. Their mating approach is unusual, to say the least. I’ll let N.B. Davies put it into words: “The act of copulation itself is extraordinary, with a male pecking the female’s cloaca carefully for a minute or so before he mates.” The reason? So that she ejects the sperm of her previous mate. In the dunnock world there is a veritable orgy of copulating, as male birds compete for paternity. Nature, therefore, has given Reverend Morris’s “quiet and retiring” dunnocks particularly large testes: they weigh 64 per cent more than those of most birds of their size, and have sperm reserves about 1,000 times greater.

Those Damn Dawn Birds

April 6, 2011 § 11 Comments

I love the birds, I really do. But this morning they woke me up with their break-of-day hollerings. They woke me up yesterday too. And they are probably going to wake me up every single dawn for the next month or two.

This morning, I recorded 30 seconds of their uproar: which you can hear here:

It sounds considerably sweeter now than it did at 5.59am.

But when I think that this may have been one of the participants (born and reared in a tangle of honeysuckle):

Fledgling blackbird: dawn-noisemaker-in-waiting

And that this may have been another: “Oscar” (all our robins are called Oscar):

Robin-shaped alarm clock

I feel a bit better disposed towards them (until tomorrow, that is).

Shooting the Breeze

February 4, 2011 § 11 Comments

One of the most exciting things in the garden, especially at this time of the year, is snowdrops. But, because there is already enough snowdroppery in the cyber-ether and in the gardening pages, I’m not going to talk about them here.

Instead, I’d like to borrow your attention for just a minute or two, and talk about something else thrilling: the wind. We’re having a rather rousing gale right now. A gale is calibrated at 8 on the Beaufort Scale: winds are 62–74 kilometres per hour and at sea the waves can be 5.5 to 7.5 metres tall. If you’re like me, and are still struggling with the metric system, let me translate that into imperial language for everybody’s comfort: 39–46 miles per hour and 18–25 feet high.

Here is a wobbly sliver of Dublin Bay as seen from our balcony. The steeple is on the Mariner’s Church, which I love, because you can see the sky through its ornate perforations. (Sorry for the buffeting wind noises in this and the other videos. My motion picture skills are minimal, which is why these are all short and sweet.)

Back in the garden, the breeze is doing interesting things to the plants. I’d show you an overall picture, but pride prevents me, as the place was devastated by the snow, and there are far too many bare sticks and blank patches of soil. Instead, let me give you a few seconds of a New Zealand grass, Chionochloa rigida, or the narrow-leaf snow tussock, swishing its tresses in the wind. Incidentally, this plant, which is normally a kind of dim-green colour, went a fetching strawberry blonde after the big snow.

And here we have a few seconds of a bamboo (Phyllostachys vivax ‘Aureocaulis’) doing some fancy dipping and diving:

And finally, I know I said I wouldn’t talk about them, but I didn’t promise not to show them to you: here is a little bunch of snowdrops. They’re Galanthus elwesii, but what cultivar, subspecies or form, I don’t know. The green markings on the inner perianth segments are almost an “x” instead of the usual upturned “u”. If anyone can help me identify them, I’d be grateful. The temperature today, incidentally, is 14 degrees Centigrade (57 F), so the snowdrop flowers are wide open for business. But it’s far too windy for bees to be about, so there will be no customers.

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