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.

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!

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.

Cordyline the Lion-Hearted

October 20, 2011 § 11 Comments

I’ve just come back from a quick break in the Cordyline County, and things are looking good there. Yes, the cabbage palms of Wexford are recovering well after the ravages of last winter. If you remember, we talked about these New Zealand natives already on One Bean Row (here). I’m very keen on them, but not all of you agree with me. Some commenters were less than cordial about cordylines.

Costa del Sunny Southeast

So, I feel I should reiterate a few of their good points: they have huge sprays of lily-scented flowers that are beloved of bees, and the waxy berries that follow are full of fats, which makes them a valuable bird food. And, of course, their moppy heads of strappy leaves give one the feeling of being permanently on holidays (see photo above).

Cordylines don’t suit all climates, but in milder areas of Britain and Ireland (and elsewhere), they are happy. If you want a sturdy tree with great shape for a tropical-looking scheme, the cordyline is the one for you. If you want a tree that will take the saltiest gales that the sea can throw at it, the cordyline is the one for you. And if you want a tree with foliage that will provide you with fibres for rope or heavy clothing, and with roots that are full of natural sugars, then the cordyline is definitely the one for you.

Okay, I doubt that any but the most ardent sustainability proponent will actually weave or eat the cordyline, but at least these qualities make a good conversation starter — if you happen to be at a loss for words next to a cabbage tree.

Stuck for conversation? Let's talk cordyline.

There are many different varieties, including a smart, stripy cultivar (‘Torbay Dazzler’) and numerous glum-looking, plum-coloured ones, but the sturdiest of them all is plain old Cordyline australis. The others rarely make it to a great age.

Which brings us back to the misfortunes of last winter, when the thermometer dipped low and stayed there for many days. More than a few cordylines ended up like this once-magnificent specimen at Kylemore Abbey garden in Co Galway — completely wiped out:

Dead as a dodo?

It was over a hundred years old. What a shame to see its gaunt corpse standing there, with a few shreds of last year’s flowers hanging from the branches, like the tattered rags of a once beautiful party dress. But wait! Let’s take a closer look at its fat trunk:

Ha! Fooled you.

Oh yes! Fresh young shoots, lots of them, are pushing out from the thick elephant-skin bark. You see, this cordyline is really as tough as old boots (in fact, you could probably weave a pair from it). In time, the old tree will completely regenerate. It will be a bristling green stump for several years, but eventually, the limbs will elongate and will once again hoist themselves proudly over the six-acre walled garden.

A similarly happy Lazarus story is being told by other cordylines. They appeared to be quite dead after last winter, but around midsummer they began to resurrect themselves by sprouting anew. Look at these rehabilitating cabbage trees on a roundabout in Wexford:


The dead bits have been expertly removed, and the trees are rebudding from trunk and base. Incidentally, if you are the owner of a back-from-the-dead cordyline, it’s too late in the year for serious surgery. You can nip away some of the horribly limp and squidgy bits, but don’t go right down to the new growth. There is a good link here on the Paramount Plants and Gardens blog that describes how to treat damaged cordylines — but it is advice for next year, not now.

In case you are wondering, the caerulean sky-and-sea photos at the beginning of this blog post are at my favourite restorative hotel in Ireland, Kelly’s in Rosslare — where the sun always comes out for at least a portion of your holiday. The garden — which conceals a mini-golf course — is a masterful piece of design: all the plants are suitable for a windswept coastal situation, and there is something flowering, fruiting or otherwise showing off all year round (Tulbaghia, Nerine, Rosa rugosa and pampas grass in October).  It was designed by Angela Jupe and Sandra Cosgrove. And, because there are cordylines in plenty, a person is never short of conversation.

Kelly's Hotel, Rosslare: Cordyline capital of the Cordyline County

That smells like autumn colour

October 8, 2011 § 7 Comments

I’ve been out smelling my katsura quite a bit recently. When autumn sets in, the leaves of this east Asian tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) give off the faintest whiff of burnt sugar. It is a fleeting and hard-to-find fragrance: there’s no point in crumpling the leaves in your hands and sniffing; instead, you must walk by the tree and hope that little wafts of candy floss (or cotton candy, if you’re American) will stray into your nostrils.

Katsura in autumn

The sugary scent is just one of the katsura’s end-of-year tricks: its heart-shaped leaves, which have been a cool blue-green all summer, turn a festive apricot tone, veined and flushed with crimson.

A strange fact about autumn colour is that the yellow and orange pigments (xanthophyll and carotene) are actually in the leaf all along — hidden away like a set of expensive underclothes. They become visible only when the green chlorophyll breaks down at the end of the season — when photosynthesis is finished for the year. The reds, crimsons and purples (anthocyanins) are another matter: these are produced from the glucose that in some species is trapped in the leaves when food manufacturing operations cease. A crisp, clear autumn (sunny days and cool nights) following a dry summer is what nature needs to make lots of anthocyanins — and a more brilliant palette of autumn colour.

Disanthus cercidifolius: a plant with lots of anthocyanins

The display on this side of the Atlantic is never as sensational as that on the far side, where the forests of New England are noisily ablaze with red, orange and yellow. This All-American foliar brass band is composed of many different tree species, but the ones I remember from a spell in Massachusetts when I was a child are the maples: red maple, sugar maple and silver maple (Acer rubrum, A. saccharum and A. saccharinum). These trees are too large for most gardens here (and they won’t necessarily produce the same fireworks). If you want to try a mini maple explosion, though, do try the Japanese kinds (A. palmatum and A. japonicum).

Japanese maple at Mount Usher Gardens, Co Wicklow

There are hundreds of varieties in cultivation, ranging from delicate-looking things a metre tall, to small trees (up to 10 metres), and all have exquisite showy-off foliage in autumn. The best for fire-engine-red leaves is supposed to be ‘Osakazuki’, which has an eventual height (very eventual — as it grows at a snail’s pace) of 6 metres. All Japanese maples like a fertile, moisture-retaining soil, and a sheltered spot away from drying and damaging winds.

Autumn colour sneaking into the leaves at Mount Usher Gardens

There are plenty of other woody things that go all technicolor at this time of the year. I’ve gathered some of my favourites below.

Trees and Shrubs
Snowy mespilus (Amelanchier lamarckii): large shrub or small tree; yellow, orange and red in autumn.
Barberry (Berberis): small and medium grow-anywhere shrubs; B. thunbergii and ‘Superba’ have good red autumn colour.
Birch (Betula): most have buttery yellow autumn leaves.
Dogwood (Cornus): many, including C. kousa and cultivars of C. florida and C. alba, have good autumn colour, from yellow to dark orange to plum.
Smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria): large shrub with smooth, rounded leaves, of either blue-green or purple, depending on variety; autumn colour from orange to red to pink.
Disanthus cercidifolius, medium shrub with heart-shaped leaves turning wine and crimson; prefers lime-free soil.
Spindle tree (Euonymus): the native E. europaeus has brilliant red autumn colour (and berries for the birds); the Asian E. alatus and E. planipes are also cherry-coloured performers.
Larch (Larix): deciduous conifers that turn warm yellow and gold before dropping their needles.
Liquidambar styricaflua: tall, upright tree; the maple-shaped autumn leaves are wine, red and yellow, and are long-lasting.
Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera): very large tree with curious, abruptly abbreviated leaves; yellow in autumn.
Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica): slow-growing, upright, medium-sized tree with ovate leaves turing yellow, orange and scarlet; needs lime-free soil.
Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica): slow-growing, spreading tree; wine, red and orange in autumn.
Cherry (Prunus): P. avium, our native wild cherry, and P. sargentii both turn orange and scarlet.
Stag’s horn sumach (Rhus typhina): small tree, which can spread by suckers; the drooping pinnate leaves turn orange and crimson.
Mountain ash/rowan (Sorbus aucuparia): yellow to orange autumn colour; other fiery members of the genus are S. commixta, S. serotina and ‘Joseph Rock’.
Viburnum: several of the deciduous viburnums have orange to wine autumn leaves, including our native guelder rose (V. opulus) and V. plicatum from China and Japan.

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

Parthenocissus: all members of this genus have startling red autumn colour, including Virginia creeper (P. quinquefolia) and Boston ivy (P. tricuspidata).
Vitis (vine): the purple-leaved ornamental grape (V. vinifera ‘Purpurea’) turns dark purple in autumn, but the best of the vines is V. coignetiae whose huge, hairy leaves gradually turn bright red.

Coming up Cabbages: a few words on Cordylines

February 11, 2011 § 22 Comments

Ireland is often a green and misty land (although less greener than usual during this cold winter). And one of the things that surprises visitors is the sight of “palm trees” incongruously raising their mop tops through the Celticky fog. They decorate our towns and suburbs, they are blasted by the salt air on our seafronts, and they are often seen in pairs guarding the entrances to farmhouses. But, they are not palm trees at all: they are the New Zealand native, Cordyline australis. They enjoy the common name of “cabbage tree”, supposedly because settlers in New Zealand found the young leaves to be a tolerable substitute for cabbage.

Cordylines flanking the door of Corke Lodge in Co Wicklow

Cordylines are much loathed. Partly it is because of the occasional and near-indestructible leaves that the trees shed (dried, they make great kindling) and partly — I think — it is because they have both lowbrow and suburban associations. It’s not unusual to see them sprouting out of a jolly carpet of summer bedding. In other words, in the eyes of a certain kind of refined gardener, the cabbage tree is a shining example of bad taste.

One of the first things that cordyline-haters do upon inheriting one in a garden, is to hack it down to the ground. The trees are unfazed by such insults, and regenerate eagerly, popping out several stems in the place of the previous single one. Good for them. This winter and the last, though, have not been kind to cordylines, and the inland parts of this country are littered with their still-standing, but mummified, corpses. I fear they may not rise again to annoy the better classes of gardeners.

Cordyline in the garden at Kylemore Abbey, Connemara

Where I live, however, all these misunderstood New Zealanders are in the pink of health. Our barometer has not dipped lower than minus 5 degrees Centigrade (23 F), whereas elsewhere in Ireland, the temperature was ten or more degrees colder. In our mild climate, the cordyline blooms every year. The angular panicles are crammed with creamy flowers, which open in late spring, and go on for weeks. The scent — strongest in the evening — is powerful and lily-like. For me it is one of the exhilarating fragrances of early summer. Bees would seem to agree. They love the flowers, and work them all day. And in the autumn and early winter the thousands of ivory-coloured berries, which are full of fats, help to keep birds alive. My neighbours’ tree across the road is a busy re-fuelling point for blackbirds, thrushes, starlings, blackcaps and wood pigeons.

Snowy cordylines across the road

If you don’t like cordylines, or if they don’t do well in your colder area, then — as we say here in a very self-righteous voice — I’m sorry for you. And you’re not likely to be interested in knowing that they belong to the same family as asparagus, Asparagaceae, a clan that also includes lily-of-the-valley and hosta.

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.

Flaky Films

December 20, 2010 § 5 Comments

I awarded myself a snow day today. There was too much outdoor work to be done: feeding birds, shovelling and sweeping snow, talking about snow, photographing snow and filming snow.

In our mild corner of Ireland, we hardly ever see snow (or at least we didn’t until about eleven months ago), so it’s all terribly exciting. And white. Today, although it was nearly the shortest day of the year, it was the brightest day in weeks, thanks to the light reflecting from the snowy blanket.

Nothing really happens in the following two wobbly and amateur films, but the foghorns are nice, and the second one is quite restful, offering 45 mesmeric seconds of falling flakes.

This is what the snow looked like from our balcony this morning:

And this is from the kitchen window a few minutes later:


November 30, 2010 § 6 Comments

This year, at about four in the morning on November 27th, winter arrived with about as much drama as you can imagine. We had sudden head-cracking thunder and lightning, followed by mung-bean-sized pellets of compacted snow that hurtled down the chimney, pinged off the grate and rolled onto the bedroom floor.

The pellets, I’ve learned recently, are called “graupel”, and they occur when supercooled droplets of water condense on a snowflake. The idea of anything condensing on a snowflake seems odd, but there you have it, that’s graupel for you.

Melting graupel, nestling in Agave

In the morning, the garden was covered in an inch of snow — both the conventional variety, and our new acquaintance, graupel. The next night we had two more inches of white stuff. It has been bone-chillingly cold for days, and there is no sign of the conditions out there changing back to the comparatively balmy maritime weather that we normally experience in this clement corner of Ireland.

Still, although I’m colder than I’ve been in months, I’m very pleased to have learned a new word, and to have had a chance to take some snowy pictures.

Phlomis russeliana: pretty, meringue-topped skeletons

Snap du Jour

Rare migrants brave the Irish snow

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