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

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A recent trip to Waterford where the porridge flows freely

September 28, 2012 § 4 Comments

In nearly two decades of garden writing I’ve been to scores of meetings, seminars and other convocations of people who grow things. But I’ve never been to one with the same buzzy atmosphere and spirit of goodwill as the recent GIY Gathering in Waterford city. (And I’ve rarely experienced anything quite so surreal either as standing in Sunday’s pouring rain on The Quay while the world’s largest pot of porridge — 1,380kg, 550 servings — was being made, as part of the city’s Harvest Festival.)

GIY, of course, is an acronym for “grow it yourself”, an organisation started by journalist Michael Kelly in 2009. It has a strong online presence (www.giyireland.com), and a network of a hundred growers’ groups throughout Ireland, where members share knowledge and expertise with each other. There’s now also a smattering of GIY groups in Australia, and Kelly is planning a British invasion too.

The GIY Gathering was about much more than how to grow good spuds, make compost, or how to deter cabbage white butterflies from laying eggs on your brassicas. It brought together international specialists who spoke about growing — yes — but also about resilience, sustainability, health, education and everything else remotely related to the food we put in our mouths.

Michael Kelly, Lia Leendertz, Roger Doiron, Alys Fowler, Mark Diacono [© Emagine Media]

All the invited speakers gave their time voluntarily. Those who came from farthest afield included New Zealand social business entrepreneur Pete Russell whose Ooooby network (Out of Our Own Backyard: www.ooooby.org) links local backyard growers and smallholders with buyers; and American Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International (www.kgi.org), whose “Eat the View” campaign led to the making of the organic vegetable garden at the White House in 2009. British speakers included broadcaster and writer Alys Fowler, writer and erstwhile River Cottage head gardener Mark Diacono, author of the Self-Sufficiency Bible Simon Dawson, writer Lia Leendertz, and sustainability visionary Paul Clarke. Among the participants from Ireland were Joy Larkcom, Klaus Laitenberger, Darina Allen, Trevor Sargent and many others. The weekend’s proceedings were presided over with good humour and intelligence by Ella McSweeney.

With five events going on at most times, it was hard to choose which to attend. Most of the talks I went to had my mind bubbling over with enthusiasm and fertilised with new ideas — although my mental jury is still out on the co-creationist’s method of slug control: include extra plants for the molluscs, and ask them nicely to leave all the others alone.

Are you sure you’re listening to me, little slug?

I was more inspired by one of Paul Clarke’s many projects, Pop Up Farm (www.pop-up-farm.com) where people are encouraged to grow food everywhere and anywhere in their locality: in a window box, on a roof, at a railway platform, in re-purposed drinks cartons. This kind of “extensive farming” is the opposite of intensive farming, and it has none of the associated problems of waste management, food miles, habitat erosion, loss of diversity and so on. A well-organised pilot scheme exists in Burnley in Lancashire where over 30 primary schools grow food in conjunction with each other. It is one interconnected farm, but in many locations. In a leaner future, where fuel and other resources are in short supply, it is strategies such as this that might save the world. It’s not too far-fetched an idea. It worked in Cuba, where the “organoponicos” feed the majority of Havana’s population. These urban organic market gardens arose when the source of cheap oil and agricultural inputs dried up after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

I was inspired too by the recurring theme of involving children in the process of growing food. Paul Clarke noted: “If you get kids growing peas and seeds, they go on to become activists for a better food system.” Trevor Sargent (www. trevorskitchengarden.ie) implored parents to make sure that  their local schools include food growing as part of the curriculum, and that it is integrated into the other subjects. “Maths, English, Irish, geography, history — all of those subjects have a food-growing dimension to them.”

Darina Allen pointed out that the root cause of obesity is the way that food has been produced since the 1950s. Industrial production systems turn out foods loaded with fat, sugar and salt. “Get the children eating fresh, naturally produced, local food in season. We spend 7 per cent of our income on food. How much do we spend on medicine? Our food should be our medicine.”

There were hundreds of other ideas discussed over the weekend, far too many to communicate in this small space. So here are just three to end with. I admired Alys Fowler’s stockpiling produce by preserving, drying, fermenting, pickling and storing underground (her book on the subject will be out next spring). I was taken by Lia Leendertz’s simple solution of sharing her allotment with three other families to quarter the work and quadruple the fun. And finally, who could argue with Mark Diacono’s advice: “grow what you most like to eat”?

GIY Gathering Themes

Resilience: growing local food, using low energy home-preserving, planting diverse crops to avoid monocultural disasters and minding the soil all build a strong food system.
Rethinking energy-heavy, disaster-prone industrial systems: smaller self-contained growing operations make more environmental and social sense. Lessons can be learned from nature where there is no waste and where all is cyclical. We can learn also from subsistence farmers, who respect the land.
Good food is undervalued: growing our own, even if it’s only a tiny box on a windowsill, leads to an awareness of the benefits and worth of real food.
Community: better food networks are built when more people are involved — sharing knowledge, skills, spaces, crops and responsibilities.
Doing: just growing something, no matter how ham-fistedly, is far better than doing nothing.
And finally, let me commend to you… From the Ground Up: How Ireland is growing its own by Fionnuala Fallon, Irish Times gardening columnist and one of the speakers at the GIY Gathering. The book, which is beautifully produced by the Irish publisher, Collins Press (€24.99), celebrates 16 very different Irish food-growing operations and the people who tend them. Fionnuala’s subjects are as diverse as an eight-square-metre apartment balcony, the 2.5-acre walled kitchen garden in the Phoenix Park, the monster pumpkins grown by teenage twin brothers in Co Louth, and the Cork-based, organic Brown Envelope Seeds. With each chapter, she captures the passion and dedication of the people involved, and deftly imparts large chunks of their know-how. Fionnuala’s husband, Richard Johnston, is a tremendously skilled photographer, and his pictures complete the book with great style.

This blog post is an elongated version of my Sunday Times column, published on September 23rd 2012

Queen of the Road — and Vegetables too

July 9, 2012 § 7 Comments

It is August 1976, and an old Mercedes van with a small caravan in tow sets off from a farm in Suffolk. Its passengers are a couple and their two children. The cargo spread among the two vehicles includes all the usual camping paraphernalia as well as bicycles, a table, chairs, a telescope, school books, and a small kitchen’s worth of pots, pans, spices and other staples. A gang of teddies, dolls, knitted animals and sundry other gregarious characters crowd the windows, catching a last glance at the East Anglia landscape. Behind them, lumpy black plastic sacks of clothing are piled high. Shelves of reference books, empty biscuit tins and a typewriter complete the inventory. Out on the road, the caravan’s momentum gradually swings open the unsecured doors of the cupboards, dumping their contents onto the jumble of possessions.

Thus started a year-long road trip that garden writer Joy Larkcom and her family made around Europe collecting old and interesting seed varieties (hence the biscuit tins), and gathering intelligence both on traditional cultivation methods and commercial growing practices. The “Grand Vegetable Tour”, as they called it, took place at a time before technology made travelling the constantly-connected and cushy business that it is today.

Communications, accessing money and finding running water were major ordeals. Despite this, Joy — sometimes in shorts and T-shirt, sometimes in scarf and mittens — would set up her typewriter and little table next to the van almost daily, and tap out hard-won notes and articles. Husband Don Pollard, meanwhile, was kept busy fixing the vehicles, schooling the children and coaxing meals (including birthday cakes) out of the caravan’s cooker.

It is thanks to the efforts of this raggle-taggle troupe, staying at camp sites and in farmers’ fields, that British seed companies began to offer vegetable varieties and mixed-leaf salads similar to those found on the continent, and that gardeners became familiar with European methods such as “cut-and-come-again” harvesting and polytunnel growing. In short, Joy’s research and seed collections acted as a catalyst for change in vegetable gardens throughout Britain and Ireland.

In the 1980s, while researching oriental vegetables, she went (sans famille) to China, Japan and Taiwan, and to Asian communities in the United States and Canada. Later excursions took her to vegetable patches, seed companies, markets and trial grounds in many countries. For four decades, she has been a one-woman research institute, collecting seed, making notes and taking pictures wherever she goes, whether it is a Cuban agriponico or a Dublin garden.

Her articles, published in trade periodicals and in magazines for home gardeners, are meticulous, rich in detail and beautifully written. They take a single subject and examine it from every angle. They are virtuoso performances on artichokes, on peas, on pumpkins, on mulching, on the correct spacing of vegetables for greatest productivity, on how to grow mammoth onions, and even on how to achieve champion giant gooseberries. They cover everything to do with the edible garden, and often introduce new ideas and crop varieties.

Joy, now 76, has won many prestigious awards (including the Royal Horticultural Society’s Veitch Memorial Medal) and has published many books. Ten years ago, at a time in their lives when most people are winding down, she and Don moved to a farmhouse near Clonakilty, in west Cork, and started a new garden from scratch. “It was just brilliant almost from the start,”, she tells me, “the sheer beauty of this place — and to hear the sea!”

The couple approached the plot, on a fiercely windswept slope, with the same dauntless enthusiasm that fuelled their year on the road in Europe. “The challenges of starting to garden here were so absorbing. It was a blank sheet, and it was just a lovely experience altogether.” The garden, an intensive patch filled with fruit, vegetables and ornamentals, is entirely organic. Joy, who was never keen on using chemicals, ceased abruptly over forty years ago. While spraying her apples with a particularly nasty tar oil wash, she discovered baby Brendan, caught in the crossfire, covered in great globs of tar.

 Although the move to Ireland was supposed to mark the start of her retirement, the woman who is widely known as the Vegetable Queen is still working as hard as ever. She has just published a book, Just Vegetating (Frances Lincoln, £18.99), based on a collection of around a hundred articles written over four decades. Interspersed with photographs, diary pages and other intriguing snippets, they are linked together with a charming and extensive commentary. The book is so warm and appealing that it gives you the feeling of spending an evening with a wise and good friend, with a box of old photos, clippings and other memorabilia.

Although it is still early in the season, I’m pretty sure that this is my book of the year.

 

An edited version of this article appeared in my weekly column in the Sunday Times

 

Diarmuid Gavin talks about his (very large) Chelsea Flower Show offering

May 4, 2012 § 9 Comments

I am sitting outside a busy seafront cafe in Dun Laoghaire. Seagulls are performing aerobatics overhead while a glossy starling keeps up a spirited commentary on the ground nearby. It’s a perfect day: not only is the sun shining, but Ireland’s most famous garden designer — who is famously difficult to pin down — has kept his appointment with me.

Diarmuid Gavin gets straight to the point: he waves at the lofty Italianate clock tower on the County Hall: “It’s about the height of that.” I gasp. He’s pleased, but forces himself to be more exact: “Well, maybe it’s just short of that.” Still, at 24 metres tall, his Westland Magical Tower is his highest Chelsea Flower Show garden yet. “The height is really a by-product of the design,” he says, with just a hint of self justification. “It’s not me trying to say” — and then he laughs in between every word — “I’ve… a… bigger… thing… than you!”

Quite a big thing, really

Whatever Gavin’s creation is trying (or not trying) to say, it is a rather wonderful item, and his most impressive Chelsea offering so far. The skeletal, pyramidal tower rises from a 16-by-16-metre footprint and tapers to an elegant point somewhere up in the heavens. The structure is unabashedly temporary, being built completely of scaffolding materials. The poles have all been painted ebony black, and the new couplers and clamps are burnished and golden. The colours are sumptuous and classy, like those of Chinese lacquer furniture.

Black scaffolding poles with burnished couplers

On the way to the top — which can be reached by an internal lift, or by metal staircases — there are seven different levels, partially decked over with scaffolding planks, giving the tower a floor area of 600 square metres.

The elevated terraces will accommodate self-contained gardens, each with a different flavour and mood, as if they are tended by different personalities. So there might be a vegetable plot (complete with compost bin and shed), a patch of jolly annuals and hanging baskets, a cool sophisticated balcony for ladies who lunch, and any number of other high-level plots.

Going up!

As with all of Gavin’s ouevres, a jumble of disparate ideas has inspired this design. Most have to do with the notion of city living and the need for increasing green space in unconventional places. Gavin is excited by the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) development in Milan, a pair of residential towers planted with hundreds of trees and thousands of shrubs. And he’s energised by the High Line, the linear park recently created on an abandoned railway track in Manhattan. But he is equally influenced by Rear Window, Hitchcock’s masterpiece of voyeuristic tension where protagonist James Stewart, confined to a wheelchair after an accident, becomes obsessed with the goings-on in the apartment block opposite. Gavin loves the obvious artificiality of the film, and wants to replicate the feeling of a “series of lives being lived in a succession of boxes, one on top of the other.” And he adds, displaying his talent for a good quote: “if there is a murder, even better!”

Do click for a better view!

The idea of making a garden out of scaffolding came last spring when he saw London’s Albert Bridge, then undergoing restoration, trussed in a densely packed and infinitely interesting web of poles and platforms.

Gavin’s magical tower, which is sponsored by Westland Horticulture, is being built near Stansted Airport by a crack team of British scaffolders. As soon as it is completed, it will be carefully disassembled, with all the parts marked and numbered before being packed into trucks and delivered to the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea — where the world’s most prestigious garden event takes place this month.

At the beginning of the nineteen-day build period before the show opens, the scaffolders will have five days to erect the tower. “I’m a bit apprehensive about the first few days,” admits Gavin. “We’ll have this amazing structure that everyone will be looking at and going ‘Oooohhh God, there goes Diarmuid again’, and ‘Who does he think he is?’ — and all that sort of thing.”

The Chelsea plot awaiting Gavin’s tower

The Irish designer always attracts scrutiny, and not just because of his brash and flamboyant designs. Over the years he has been embroiled in public disputes with other participants, and — last year — with his sponsors. Accordingly, his Chelsea Flower Show appearances have always garnered more publicity than those of any other designer. But his gardens also warrant the attention for themselves:  “We’re trying to be adventurous, and trying to have some fun, and trying to push it. We should, as designers, be offering something new. It’s an exhibition. It’s show business!”

Gavin admits that some of his gardens have been more successful than others — mainly because he becomes consumed with near-irrational enthusiasm during each project. He mentions one in particular: “at the time I thought it was the most magical thing in the world. And then to realise that it wasn’t — that was like a flat bottle of lemonade.”

His ideas often come to him almost fully formed, “and that is what causes me problems,” he says. “Sometimes you’ll refine it and you go and talk to everybody about it, and then a few weeks later, you will realise ‘That was the worst idea I ever had, and I’m so embarrassed!’”

Barrels of fun

When we meet, Gavin is at the not-sleeping stage of obsession with his current Chelsea offering. His iPad is crammed with images: besides the countless concept drawings and plant specimen photos, there are shots of scaffold fixings, wooden potato crates, rows of oil drums, and piles of rusted containers he found in the scaffolder’s yard — “Can you imagine ivy trailing over them? Or box planted in them? Or lavender in the sky?”

Potato crates

And there are dozens of pictures of the structure gradually ascending near Stansted. He’s thrilled by the way that the vertical scaffolding bars arrange themselves in regular ranks of columns — especially on the lowest level. “It’s absolutely classical!”

He’s crazily, madly in love with his scaffolding and all the beauteous shapes and dreams it conjures up all by itself. Yet he knows that he must put this infatuation to one side. “I can’t get carried away with the structure, I have to realise I am making a garden.”

“The planting stage is where you get it right or you get it wrong. The planting is whether this — like the Irish Sky Garden — becomes a garden that endears itself to people or not. You are a big show-off if you come along and make a scaffolding structure that size. But unless I can get the little old ladies standing there smiling at it, I haven’t done a good job.”

So, in order to make sure that the old ladies — and everyone else, including the judges — smile on him, Gavin is concentrating hard on the planting, along with Clontarf-based landscaping contractor Gerry Conneely, one of his team of sixteen workers. The hunt for perfect specimens has led them to nurseries in Germany, Italy, France and Belgium.

The lowest level of the garden will be full of shade lovers such as tree ferns, hostas and ivies. And rising into the next level will be a grove of chalky-stemmed birches. “I like really simple planting. I’ll always have box. And look at this!” — and he scrolls to a bold-leaved loquat. “I love it! It’s so Oscar Wilde. And what about this?” —  a huge flat-domed Portugal laurel. “That costs a couple of grand. But it would be great for a very formal garden, like the Ladies Who Lunch garden.” And on and on he goes, as plants fly by on the iPad screen.

Portugal laurel pudding — for the ladies-who-lunch

Gavin has mixed feelings about Chelsea: “Last year I felt it more strongly than ever. I am both massively excited and repulsed. And when I say repulsed, I really mean it.” And his voice thickens with horror. “Because it’s flower arranging. I absolutely love it, but I think ‘you’re just placing the plants.’  But then you walk away from it, and you realise that there is a bit of an art form in this.”

♣   ♣   ♣

Diarmuid Gavin’s Chelsea Gardens

1995: “To the Waters and The Wild”: the enchanting slice of Irish countryside and its romantic stone ruin was made on a shoestring, winning Gavin and collaborator, Vincent Barnes, a bronze medal.

1996: The modern city garden had glass slabs that lit up when stepped on, and although it won no medals, its designer’s ready charm and cheeky good looks landed him a presenter’s spot on television and launched a busy media career.

2004: “A Colourful Suburban Eden” was a jaunty creation, with a sea of giant lollipops and a Fabergé-egg-type pavilion. Probably Gavin’s most expensive garden: “I sort of lost the run of myself because it was so busy, and I left everything until late,  and you pay top dollar then.” The judges gave it a silver-gilt medal.

2005: The pretty “Hanover Quay Garden” with swathes of lavender and box balls was awarded a silver gilt.

2007: “The Westland Garden”, which won a silver-gilt medal, had beauteous planting by Stephen Reilly and a softly-curving garden studio by Irish company, Shomera.

2008: The Oceânico Garden, with Sir Terence Conran was a city courtyard populated by a flotilla of airy, metal mesh daisies. The designers’ blurb enthused “It’s Honey I Shrunk the Kids meets Roald Dahl!” The judges awarded a bronze medal.

2011: “The Irish Sky Garden”, sponsored by Fáilte Ireland and Cork City Council, featured a giant pink metalwork pod suspended from a crane. It earned Gavin his first Chelsea gold, but the project was not a happy one. Destined to be rebuilt in Cork’s Fitzgerald Park, the Avatar-inspired creation has been the subject of acrimony between Cork County Council, Fáilte Ireland and the designer’s office — which is no longer involved in the venture. “It is a great embarrassment,” says Gavin. “But it is not my embarrassment. I don’t believe we did anything wrong.” The Fitzgerald Park project has been put out to tender. “It’s difficult for anyone who wins the tender, because they have to redo our garden with us not being too happy about it, but it’s work, and everybody needs work in this country in this day and age.”

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Diarmuid speaks:

– The best thing about Chelsea: “Working with the lads, and seeing it coming together. And getting to work with plants that you will never get to work with on a commercial job”

– The worst thing about Chelsea:  “The grasping for gold: nothing else matters, just gold.”

– The next big thing in gardening: “the environment, growing your own, cocooning, colour, herbaceous, conservation of water, composting, sustainability: all those things that I might have thought were boring 10 years ago.”

– Greatest inspiration? “I love what Philip Treacy [the Irish milliner] does: I absolutely love that genius because it’s fun and elegant and quirky in terms of design. It’s just… astonishing.”

– On being controversial: “I think our stuff is relatively tame. It’s quirky. If I wanted to be controversial at Chelsea, I would be projecting images of the queen, or of nude queens.”

– On past gardens made for television shows: “I was like a child in the sweetshop. We made the good, the bad and the ugly, and we threw everything but the kitchen sink in… But what with one thing and the other, I learnt a bit, and I calmed down.”

– On being middle-aged: “I love middle age for enjoying the simpler things, and not having frustrations any more. You are more confident in yourself, you’re not as shy. You just say ‘this is me’. A friend pointed out to me that my hair was receding, So I showed it to my wife, and she said, “Yes, it is. That’s what happens.”

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Diarmuid Tube

A series of short videos on Diarmuid Gavin’s Youtube channel comments on the making of this year’s Chelsea garden.

© Jane Powers  A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times. 

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.

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.

It’s a book!

March 24, 2011 § 15 Comments

My late father, J.F. Powers, was a writer of note in the United States.  His first novel, Morte D’Urban, won the National Book Award in 1963. There was some pretty heavyweight competition. His output was small and choice: two novels and three books of short stories. His last book took 22 years to write. I hate to think of the excuses he fed to his agent and publishers, or the guilt that he must have felt after a long day at the office deciding whether to plump for a colon or a dash.

Well, I’ve just written a book too. It took me a little over two years — a mere sprint compared to my father’s marathon. I took all the photos, except for six that my husband Jonathan Hession shot, and one (of my late mother) that my sister Katherine provided.

The book, The Living Garden, is published by Frances Lincoln — my dream publishers. When I started writing about gardening sixteen years ago, I used to look at the beautiful books produced by this independent London house, and imagine my name on the cover and spine of something published by them. So, I was delighted (and more than a little terrified) when I was actually asked by them to submit an idea for a book.

And, a month or two ago, when I finally got my hands on a single, precious advance copy, I put it on the shelf between Beth Chatto’s and Helen Dillon’s books (two of my favourite garden writers), just to see what it looked like. It looked delightful. But I took it down fairly quickly, as it seemed an impertinence to let it linger next to these two great gardening women. (It never even occurred to me to put it next to my father’s books. That would have been far too bumptious.)

If you feel like buying the book, there are links on this page to Amazon (but do try your local bookshop first).

You can read the introduction by clicking on the thumbnails here.

And finally if you want to meet me, I’ll be doing some book signings:

Newbridge Silverware, Newbridge, Co Kildare: 3pm, Friday April 1st.

Brown Thomas, Grafton Street, Dublin 2: 2pm, Saturday April 16th 2011

Launch of the West Cork Garden Trail, Glebe Gardens, Baltimore, West Cork: 11 am, June 11th 2011

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