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.”

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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. 

Alpine plants — or their royal lownesses from high places

April 29, 2012 § 5 Comments

One of my favourite events of the year just took place. It was the annual gathering of the most blue-blooded and elite of the horticultural world. I’m talking, of course, about the Alpine Garden Society show. The dainty plants, lovingly grown in cold glasshouses and raised beds, and transported from the four corners of Ireland for this day, are the aristocracy of plantkind.

I’m a lousy alpine gardener myself, but I admire the efforts of my fellow gardeners. So in honour of them, here are a few pictures, and an article on alpines that I wrote some years ago.

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Tightly-rolled gentian umbrella

In my small alpine bed I have five Narcissus bulbocodium blooming. There’s nothing terribly special about these dainty daffodils with their egg-yolk-yellow cones, but it’s the first time they’ve flowered for me, so I find myself going out to inspect them three or four times each day.

I also have 18 furled buds on a Gentiana acaulis, and in the next couple of weeks they’ll open into a little colony of deep-blue, upturned trumpets — like a miniature forest of His Master’s Voice gramophones. Trouble is that the slugs and snails like nothing better than rolled-up trumpets for dinner, but since I nabbed 37 of the critters the other night, I reckon we’re safe for a while.

So far I have only 26 different plants in this tiny alpine garden, so I’m no more than a rank novice. Real alpine gardeners have hundreds and thousands of plants. Still, I think I’ve cracked one of the essential characteristics of a successful alpinist or rock gardener. An obsessive interest in numbers.

Alpine gardeners are forever (well, nine times out of ten) counting, cataloguing and listing their little charges. And that is perfectly understandable, because alpine plants are the jewels of the garden, and being so, they induce compulsive inventory-taking in their owners.

But unlike static gemstones, pearls and gold, alpines are performing treasures — with a repertoire of colourful tricks to lure us right into their inches-high world.

Androsace laevigata

Some, like many of the saxifrages, cover their tight, wind- and drought-resistant foliage entirely with shimmering, perfect stars. Others, the pleiones, for instance — or terrestrial orchids — erupt in spring from shiny, green bulbs into flamboyant pink affairs with five winged petals and a fringed tube whose corrugated and spotted innards draw you in for a closer view.

Pleione formosana

And some, like the gentians, produce flowers of such pure, concentrated colour that they make your eyes sing. Or, as the 19th century botanist, Thomas Corry, put it when applauding the Burren’s Gentiana verna: “Blue — blue — as if the sky let fall / a flower from its own caerulean wall.”

But the most common stunt pulled by many of these horticultural pets is the one where they keel over dead without so much as a blink. Only the white plant label remains as a sad little tombstone.

Alpine plants are a special challenge for Irish gardeners with our rainy, mild climate and soggy wintertime soil. True alpines, with their close-knit leaves and short, brilliant flowers are adapted to grow high up on mountains in thin stony soil, where the winters are hard and long, the summers short, and where the spring brings nutrient-rich snow-melt washing down the slopes.

A rather nice Lewisia

Obviously we can’t recreate the high-mountain weather, but we can ensure really good drainage with a mix of equal parts grit, good soil and peat-free compost — a recipe that will suit many alpines. And we can keep the necks of the plants dry — and thus prevent rotting — by mulching around them with more grit. And we can mimic the spring flood of nourishment by feeding plants annually with bonemeal, pelleted chicken manure or liquid tomato food.

But even with such care there is still a high proportion of fatalities, which is discouraging for gardeners of perennials and shrubs — far less finicky subjects. So to avoid frustrating disappointment, the thing to do is to start off with a few easy, inexpensive alpines. You will kill some (I have my own mini-collection of gravestones) and you will bring some to glorious flowering.

We pay homage to Your Superior Floralnesses

“Easy” alpines include varieties of the low, mat-forming, north American phloxes, Phlox subulata and P. douglasii, some of the saxifrages, the succulent sedums, the smaller penstemons and campanulas, and all kinds of dwarf Dianthus, the relatives of garden pinks and carnations.

At the other end of the scale are alpine royalty such as the “cushion plant”, Androsace vandellii, from the high mountains of Europe — which blankets itself in white flowers (providing that it has been protected from aphids, winter wet and summer drought and is turned regularly to get even amounts of sunlight) and the dwarf shrub Daphne petraea ‘Grandiflora’, a similarly tricky individual with pink scented flowers. Plants such as this fill beginners like me with a respectful awe — but it helps to remember that their growers have left a long trail of plant corpses in the pursuit of such gems like these.

As any expert will tell you, even if you kill three out of four plants, you’re over fifty per cent of the way towards being a real alpine gardener (in nine out of ten cases).

Move over shamrocks, here come the Irish primroses

March 16, 2012 § 11 Comments

Seven years ago, I was wandering around the Alpine Garden Show in Dublin, admiring the little gems and rare treasures in their perfectly-presented pots — and feeling that annual mix of awe and envy at the people who grow these impossibly perfect plants.

And then, I was stopped short by a more than usually magnificent sight. It was a long table crowded with primulas: dozens and dozens of them in full flower. Some had a familiar look about them, but others were unlike anything I’d seen before. “New Irish Primrose Hybrids”, proclaimed the sign: “All Bred Over the Past 25 Years by Joe Kennedy, Ballycastle”.

There were several distinct forms: dainty, low-growing flowers,  in pink, white, mauve and palest yellow — not unlike our native Primula vulgaris; and bigger blooms in deep wine, peach and other tones that clustered among robust, deep-bronze leaves. There were also “hose-in-hose” kinds where one flower is improbably stacked inside another, and robustly-stemmed ones with their blooms held proud above the foliage. I had never seen such an array of good-looking, covetable plants.

Primrose breeding was a popular pastime among Irish lady gardeners at the end of the 19th century, and in the first half of the 20th. Mrs Johnson of Kinlough in Leitrim and Miss Winifred Wynne of Avoca (owner, with her sisters, of the woollen mill there) were just two who bred some fine cultivars. But there have been only a handful of new introductions since the 1950s. Many of the vintage varieties have disappeared, and the plants passed around among primrose fanciers tend to be a few old faithfuls, including ‘Lady Greer’, ‘Kinlough Beauty’, and ‘Guinevere’.

Primula 'Guinevere', possibly bred by Mrs Johnson of Co Leitrim

So, the unexpected appearance of a whole clatter of recently-bred, vigorous, handsome Irish primroses was tremendously exciting. (There is something especially winning about a primrose: it is a gentle and unassuming flower, but it hides a steely determination that allows it to bloom in the coldest of springs.)

Alas, Joe Kennedy’s plants were not for sale at that show in 2005. He had created them purely for his own pleasure. They had occupied him since the late 1970s, and when he took early retirement from dentistry in the eighties, they consumed him entirely. Each year, he would breed about 2,000 new plants, and at least 1,900 would end up as “compost for the future”. He kept only those that offered desirable traits for his back garden breeding programme.

His sole raw materials — the ancestors of all his progeny — were “wee pieces” of about twenty old Irish cultivars collected over the years from gardeners throughout Ireland. In the beginning, his pollinating choices were random, but as the years went on, he began to breed for specific attributes: darker leaves, larger blooms, distinct flower shape and colour, and of course, hardiness.

Joe Kennedy's backyard in Ballycastle, Co Antrim

The Kennedy primroses may well have remained a private passion, shared only with a few envious people at plant shows, as their creator is a self-contained person. “I’m a bit of a recluse. I just work here on my own. I have a job to do.” And then, with refreshing candour: “People coming around are only a bloody nuisance.”

Despite this, one brave man managed to break through the reserve, and is now working with our eremitic primrose hero to bring these new Irish cultivars to a wider and international public. Hallelujah. Pat FitzGerald of FitzGerald Nurseries in Kilkenny (which specialises in mass production of garden-worthy, easy-to-grow plants) contacted Kennedy after reading an article by him in Moorea, the Irish Garden Plant Society’s journal. He convinced the breeder to hand over twenty or thirty of his better plants, which were then subjected to a selection process. Finally, two dark-leaved varieties with yellow eyes were chosen to be launched last year: ‘Innisfree’ has red flowers, while those of ‘Drumcliff’ are white, flushed with lilac.

New Irish primroses with very old genes: 'Innisfree' and 'Drumcliff'

FitzGerald has four full-time employees working on the primrose project. Last year, five thousand of each variety were micropropagated at the nursery’s high-tech lab in Enniscorthy. Later they were brought to the Kilkenny division of the nursery on the old FitzGerald family farm to be “weaned” (acclimatised to outdoor conditions).

This year around 50,000 each of ‘Innisfree’ and ‘Drumcliff’ have been been propagated, and within the next couple of years, three new Kennedy cultivars will be introduced. The new Irish primroses are being sold across Europe: in France, Germany, Holland and Belgium; in Japan; and in America, where were launched at last year’s Philadelphia Flower Show. They’re available in Ireland and the UK also, in selected garden centres.

There’s good news too for the venerable old Irish cultivars that provided the genetic material for Kennedy’s new range. These antique primulas are due to be revived in a separate programme (supported by Bord Bia) at FitzGerald Nurseries. Nearly a century after their last heyday, Irish primroses will rule the world again.

This is an edited version of a piece that I wrote for the Irish Times gardening column in 2011

The Month of Froguary

February 22, 2012 § 23 Comments

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

Just sittin'

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

'Ere wot you lookin' at?

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

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

What I saw through the Bergenia

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

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

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

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

Springuary Days

January 17, 2012 § 18 Comments

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

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

Winter redpolls, still visiting

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

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

Ranunculus ficaria 'Brazen Hussy'

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

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

Ceanothus 'Trewithen Blue'

And now, two bits of exciting news:

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

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

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

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

Some Seasonal Twiggery Pokery, and Ghosts of Christmas Wreaths Past

December 18, 2011 § 8 Comments

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

Dodonaea wreath

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

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

Ivy-clad willow ring

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

Variegated pittosporum wreath with skimmia berries

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

Dodonaea encore, with Casuarina cunninghamiana

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

I do like to be beside the seaweed

November 7, 2011 § 13 Comments

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

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

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

Perfect for potatoes

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

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

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

The long seaweed walk

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

Perseus and Medusa go to the seaside

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

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

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