December 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
Around this time of the year, I regularly have a battle with florist’s wire, lumps of foam, lengths of ribbon, green tape, pliers, spray paint and bamboo skewers. It’s all part of my annual attempt to wrestle greenery, cones and berries into garlands and other decorative whatnots. The fruits of my labours are satisfying and festive, but the operations usually swallow up two evenings. The first one is great fun, but by the second I’m feeling a little strained and at the mercy of various ungracious thoughts. Surely, there must be an easier way of decking the house with plant material?
Well, yes, there is, as I learned from a recent visit to Denise Dunne, proprietor of The Herb Garden. Denise grows organic herbs, salads and wildflowers, and produces seed for sale at her home in Naul, Co Dublin. Her unusual herbs and edible flowers are in demand by food stylists and chefs — including the contestants in the Irish Masterchef television show. She has applied her expertise in herb garden design in several places, among them Brook Lodge Hotel at Macreddin in Co Wicklow and Drimnagh Castle in Dublin.
Yet, what made me sit up and take notice recently were her table decorations for the Web Summit at the beginning of November. For the dinner at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham for 300 people, she supplied dozens of herb posies: delightfully simple bunches of bay, sage, lavender, meadowsweet and hawthorn berries. Then, for the Summit’s buffet dinner at Dublin Castle she made a table runner of material foraged from her garden. Hawthorn berries featured again, combined with ferns, ivy and oak leaves in full autumn glory.
“They were all native Irish plants, which was perfect — as the dinner was promoting Irish producers,” says Denise. And, because her whole garden is certified by the Organic Trust, all were organic, another nice touch. “It was all very simple and natural, we just laid them out, with no wiring, no tying, and no Oasis.”
Actually, it wasn’t quite as simple as that, as the day brought non-stop torrential rain. Picking and gathering was more akin to a water sport than plant collection, and then, because all the material was drenched, every leaf, sprig and berry had to be individually and carefully dried with a towel before being laid on the pristine white table cloths.
When I ask Denise to suggest some natural trimmings for a Christmas table, she takes to her garden again. She chooses native ferns — both the hart’s-tongue and male fern — for the long, flowing shapes needed to give continuity to a central runner. Additional foliage includes ivy, variegated holly, and a few autumn-flushed spindle leaves. She adds a sprinkling of bright fruits: plump rose hips, pink-and-scarlet spindle berries and rough-textured and perfectly-round Arbutus unedo fruits in lime-green, orange and crimson. The last is commonly known as the strawberry tree, and is unusual in that it is native to Ireland and the Mediterranean, but not to Britain. The fruits take a year to ripen, so the trees often bear fruits and flowers at the same time.
Denise is not averse to adding a bit of glitz to her Yuletide efforts, and she uses the occasional, judicious spritz of copper spray paint to give warm, metallic accents to ivy berries, birch twigs, teasel heads, and the curious, inflated seedheads of Nigella damascena. Tea-light holders with copper rims and a copper-toned candle “bling things up a little bit” while keeping the colour scheme co-ordinated.
She embellishes her napkins by tying them with raffia and inserting bunches of plant material. A green and red combination is sage, rosemary, French lavender and rose hips, while a more opulent mix is copper-sprayed nigella seedheads with the pearly, wafer-thin pods of honesty (Lunaria annua).
Denise’s kind of table decorations can be assembled relatively quickly, which is a boon when there are a million little tasks that need to be done. What I also love, though, is that they are snippets of nature at the Christmas table — a place where many of us linger for hours. The smooth perfection of a rose hip, the intricacy of a fern frond, the translucency of a honesty seedhead — all these offer moments of calm and contemplation in this sometimes frenetic season.
Denise Dunne may be contacted at theherbgarden.ie
Material for seasonal decorations can be found on woodland walks, but remember, you should be foraging, not pillaging. It is best to collect only nuts, cones and leaves that have fallen to the ground. Plentiful plants, such as ivy, can also be harvested in moderation. Leave holly alone, as there are far too many people plundering it already. Gardens – your own or a friend’s — offer plenty of material.
A version of this blogpost appeared earlier in The Sunday Times, Ireland
September 30, 2013 § 10 Comments
A dark day in the sun
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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:
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:
Let’s take a closer look at 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.