March 22, 2014 § 13 Comments
On the night of Monday, March 3rd 2014, Ireland’s most respected botanical artist died, a month before her 99th birthday. Wendy Walsh (née Storey) was born in Bowness-on-Windermere in Cumbria, but she came to live here in 1958 when her husband, Lt. Col. John Walsh, originally from Edgeworthstown in Co Longford, retired from the British army.
It was not until Wendy Walsh was in her sixties that her work became widely known. In 1978 her paintings of wildflowers were reproduced on four postage stamps, and for the following six years she was commissioned annually to produce stamps on the theme of Irish flora and fauna. In 1983, she collaborated with Dr Charles Nelson and Ruth Isabel Ross on the first volume of An Irish Florilegium: Wild and Garden Plants of Ireland, a sumptuous publication with 48 hand-tipped colour plates. Her name was suddenly everywhere, and the book was found in all the best drawing rooms. Today, the scarce first edition is offered for between €600 and €1250 by rare book dealers. The second volume followed in 1988.
Wendy’s paintings are keenly observed plant studies, with each detail carefully and faithfully rendered. They exactly capture the vulnerable softness of a petal, the beige brittleness of an autumn flower stalk, the joyful freshness of a spring bud, the angular kink in a year-old twig. Her colour matches are flawless and her composition elegant. In her best works, her subjects inhabit the page with the same kind of poise and presence that a great dancer manifests on stage.
The paintings are all the more remarkable because Wendy Walsh was that rare thing, a self-taught artist in a discipline that requires a precise knowledge of a science: in this case, botany. She was brought up, as she told me a few years ago, “in a curious old age” with a “mother who hated school and wouldn’t let any of her girls go to school.” She was taught by an “indifferent governess” until she was 14, and had no further education after that. Yet, she had an analytical and curious mind, consuming books and — as a teenager — keeping an illustrated wildlife diary.
Her mother named her Wendy Felicité after a favourite cocker spaniel and a French rose. She was gracious about the quirky origins of her name, and believed that it shaped her career as a painter of animals and plants. In the 1930s, she undertook commissions to paint dogs. She rode horses and hunted, and enjoyed herself immensely. “The 1930s were blissful times, no money, but lots of fun!”
During the Second World War she worked as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), a voluntary field nurse, and met a man whose horsemanship made him stand out from the many other officers. She married John Walsh in 1941, following him from camp to camp — moving 13 times in a year — until he was shipped out with the Eighth Army to north Africa. His army work during and after the war saw him travel extensively, including to the United States, India, Japan and Singapore. Sometimes Wendy and the growing family (three children eventually) were in tow, sometimes not. She told me: “That’s what the army’s like. We were always being separated and starting again.”
Eventually they settled back in Ireland, in Lusk, while John worked as the agent for Trinity College in Dublin, managing the campus. In 1999, after 40 years in north county Dublin, they moved to the stable-yard of Burtown House in Athy, Co Kildare, the home of their daughter, Lesley Fennell, a portrait painter.
Throughout her life, Wendy drew and painted whenever she had time, and over the years completed hundreds of commissions. She won numerous awards, including gold medals from the Royal Horticultural Society and the Alpine Garden Society. In 1996 Trinity College Dublin conferred an honorary DLitt on her, which, she said: “made me laugh, and delighted me so much. It struck me as funny that someone who had never been to school could call themselves doctor.”
Wendy worked on over a dozen books, almost all of which were close collaborations with Charles Nelson, the former taxonomist at the National Botanic Gardens. Their working relationship, he says, was “a very amicable partnership”.
She was a good teacher, too, and continued to take students into her nineties. One former student recalls how she gave careful attention to each class participant. When a piece was so wrong that it was impossible to correct, she would say kindly, but pointedly: “That is rather a mistake.”
Many of those in the newly formed Irish Society of Botanical Artists have been inspired by this talented, generous and modest woman. It is fitting that on the morning of the society’s foundation on March 1st, just two days before her death, she was nominated its first member.
Wendy Walsh: April 9th 1915 – March 3rd 2014
The Wild and Garden Plants of Ireland, paintings by Wendy F. Walsh, with text by E. Charles Nelson, was published by Thames & Hudson in 2009. All the 99 illustrations from the 2-volume Irish Florilegium are gathered into this book: a perfect introduction to the work of Wendy Walsh.
This blog post is an a version of my column, which appeared in the Sunday Times on March 16th 2014
September 30, 2013 § 10 Comments
A dark day in the sun
The heron ate my frogs.
Not “a heron”, but “the heron”. In Ireland, serious threats are accorded the definite article: the fox, the blight, the whooping cough, and — on that fine day last spring — the heron.
Or rather, it was a fine day for the heron, but not so for the frogs. They had already had a stressful year. Spring had come early, and gone away again. January was so mild that the frogs had spawned on the 7th (the earliest date yet in my twenty-one-year stint in this garden). They spawned again at the end of the month, and then, spring retreated and winter blew back in with flurries of sleet and snow.
When spring finally reappeared in March, they were in the pond again — glorious, tumbling bundles of fornicating frogs. I left them to their work, undisturbed by my camera. After the difficult start to the year, they deserved some privacy and peace.
The heron thought otherwise.
My phone rang. It was a neighbour: “Are you looking out the window?”
No, I wasn’t (for once).
“There is a huge bird eating the frogs — like a crane or something. It’s amazing!”
I was torn: should I reach for my camera, or should I shout at the dogs to scare off the intruder? A quick look out the window revealed that it wasn’t a crane (a very rare visitor to Ireland), but — as I suspected — a grey heron (Ardea cinerea), the largest heron in Europe, which is native to Ireland, Britain and much of Europe and to parts of Asia and Africa. My glance revealed also that it was too late for the frog, dangling darkly from the bird’s brutal bill, so I grabbed the camera.
I felt like a traitor towards the amphibians with whom I had shared many summer afternoons by the tiny pond, but I wanted the picture. I am, after all, keen on wildlife, and here was wildlife — and wild death — happening right in front of my lens. Still, I felt affronted and angry. I had nurtured the frogs, thinking of them as “my” frogs, although they were nobody’s frogs but their own. But now, it was apparent, they were the heron’s.
The frog that was in the heron’s bill, and that would soon be in its stomach, was old enough to breed, so it was three or four years old. What a way to go. One minute in the throes of reproduction, and the next in the jaws of death.
I moved closer and closer to the heron. Was there a touch of annoyance in its golden, predator’s eye? Eventually, it unfolded its massive wings and flapped off to perch on a tree in a neighbouring garden, the frog still hanging from its bill.
It swallowed it whole (and still alive?), and moved to the top of a swing set, perhaps contemplating its next move. Would it be able to cram in another frog? It was the heron’s own breeding season, so perhaps it was stocking up on food to regurgitate later for its chicks. A magpie arrived, sat next to it on the wooden bar, and then dive-bombed it several times. Maybe the magpie, a ruthless predator itself, was worried what might happen to its future offspring if the heron got too comfortable in this place.
The big bird came back to rest on the wall of my garden, but I saw it off too. I felt mean scaring it away, but it had already helped itself to several frogs. I thought it would probably be back before I managed to get some netting for the pond.
And indeed it was: a while later it was swishing its yellow bill around in the weedy water, as if stirring a pot of porridge. After I had rigged up an unlovely wire grid over the pond — with room for songbirds and frogs to scoot under — the heron returned several times, puzzled at this barrier to its food source. It sat on the greenhouse roof (where it made a striking finial ornament), waiting to see if the wire mesh might somehow disappear. It didn’t. In making the pond inviting for the frogs, I felt I had a duty of care for them. The heron, I decided, could go somewhere else.
August 27, 2013 § 2 Comments
We’re looking at a very strange tomato. Reassuringly, it is red, but after that it departs from the modern standards of tomatokind. It is rumpled and bloated, erupting disconcertingly into small, globular lobes. It reminds me of a virus enlarged under an electron microscope. Organic gardener, Nicky Kyle, says “It’s the most difficult tomato you could ever grow: it splits as soon as you look at it, it only produces one flush of fruit, and the plant looks as if it’s been sprayed with weedkiller, because it’s all twigs and no leaves!”
So why on earth is she growing it, and why am I carefully saving the seed from the unlovely individuals she gave me to bring home? Because, as she points out, when you taste it, “you forgive it everything”. It is sweet, full and ketchuppy — and early too. Those nearly leafless stems allow the sun to ripen the fruit much faster than other tomato varieties.
The tomato in question, ‘Latah’, is just one of over 100 cultivars that will be on show at the 2nd annual Totally Terrific Tomato Festival next Sunday at Rolestown Garden Centre, outside Swords. Nicky Kyle, an avid tomato grower for the last three-and-a-half decades, conceived the idea of the event, while Michael Connolly and his son, John, supply the venue. The festival, which attracted hundreds of visitors last year, is a celebration of all things tomato. There will be competitions for best quality, heaviest and ugliest tomatoes, best tomato-based recipe, best tomato grown by an under-12, and best vegetable basket. There will also be tomato-based foods, a farmers’ market, and other wholesome delights. Matthew Jebb, director of the National Botanic Gardens, will be talking tomatoes, as will Tanguy de Toulgoët of Dunmore Country School in Durrow, Co Laois.
Home-grown tomatoes, as well as being good to eat and not too difficult to grow, give an almost cartoon-like demonstration of genetic diversity. There are hundreds of varieties available to the home gardener, from the little red ‘Gardener’s Delight’ and orange ‘Sungold’ to the great beefy beefsteaks ‘Black from Tula’ and ‘White Queen’. There are tomatoes that look like other fruits: ‘Orange Banana’, ‘Yellow Pear’, ‘Persimmon’, ‘Orange Strawberry’, and ‘Yellow Currant’ and tomatoes that appear to be made of glossy mahogany (‘Cherokee Chocolate’) and polished, black ebony (‘Indigo Rose’). Tomatoes, in short, are some of the most intriguing and appealing fruits known to man. The fact, that they are fruits, but are often thought of as vegetables only adds to their fascination.
The most immediate reason to grow them, though, is flavour. Supermarket tomatoes are getting better all the time, but they still cannot compete with the sun-warmed explosion of squelchy deliciousness that is the just-picked tomato.
When I visit Rolestown Garden Centre to look at Michael’s twenty varieties of tom, coming along nicely in their pots, Nicky Kyle has brought a huge basket of her own, grown in her north county Dublin polytunnels, for us to try. We work our way through about a dozen kinds, but the more subtly-flavoured varieties are drowned out by the big guns such as ‘Black Sea Man’ — which is deep and resonant, like a good Chateauneuf de Pape. We have only water to cleanse our palates, and we should have had bread or cream crackers. Or, as Michael suggests: “You could do it like cheese, and have the mild ones first.”
Nonetheless, we have a whale of a time. The different colours, textures, smells and — of course — tastes are a treat to so many of the senses. These are tomatoes that you will never find for sale, except occasionally at gourmet shops and farmers’ markets. Factors such as their odd shapes, irregular sizes, soft skins and uncertain yields make them impractical for commercial growers and supply chains.
“Genetic diversity is being dangerously eroded all the time by industrial food production,” says Nicky. “It’s important to preserve old varieties and good new ones too, in case those genes are needed in future breeding programmes for some unknown pest or disease which may hit us with climate change or other threat.”
Tomatoes also have human stories attached. The heavy beefsteak ‘Mortgage Lifter’, for example, was bred by M.C. Byles in West Virginia in the 1930s. The proceeds from his sales of tomato plants paid off his $6,000 mortgage. ‘Amish Paste’, which makes ambrosial sauces, is an heirloom variety from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. Europe has its share of heritage toms too: with eastern countries being particularly fertile. ‘Black Krim’, ‘Black from Tula’ and (surprisingly), ‘Paul Robeson’ are all from Russia.
As Nicky Kyle says, growing your own tomatoes is “in some way preserving our social history too. In the past so many people took the trouble to save these old varieties and pass them down to us. I feel we owe it to them to keep them going.”
The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival: 11am–5pm is Sunday, September 1st at Rolestown Garden Centre, Swords, Co Dublin. Satnav: 53.48268, -6.29783
Let’s talk tomatoes
Nicky Kyle’s website is a generous compendium of information on organic growing. Her “Tomato Report 2012” includes a review of the best varieties for Irish home-growers.
Let’s go to Laois
Tanguy de Toulgoët’s half-day course on autumn in the garden takes place on September 28th at Dunmore Country School, just outside Durrow. Subjects include planning, compost, rose care and rotation. Eur 50. Booking essential. Tanguy also gives individual gardening lessons in your own garden. See dunmorecountryschool.ie for details.
An edited version of this blog entry appeared in my gardening column in The Sunday Times
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”.
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.
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.
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
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.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.
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
April 6, 2011 § 11 Comments
I love the birds, I really do. But this morning they woke me up with their break-of-day hollerings. They woke me up yesterday too. And they are probably going to wake me up every single dawn for the next month or two.
This morning, I recorded 30 seconds of their uproar: which you can hear here:
It sounds considerably sweeter now than it did at 5.59am.
But when I think that this may have been one of the participants (born and reared in a tangle of honeysuckle):
And that this may have been another: “Oscar” (all our robins are called Oscar):
I feel a bit better disposed towards them (until tomorrow, that is).
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 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.
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.
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.