A walk down our lane

 

We’re lucky enough not only to live in the country but to live on a lane where the only traffic is a few tractors or on a busy farming day, huge farm machinery. As that only happens on a handful of days a year the rest of the time the lane is a peaceful place to walk the dog and enjoy nature at its very best. The hedgerows are of particular interest to me as in these days of clearing everything in the name of progress they stand out. As I walked along last week I took a few photos of the plants growing on each side of me. Such a fine selection there was too. I know they are mostly what we called weeds and I suppose I’m a hypocrite in some ways as I dig them out of my own flowerbeds but here on the lane I can appreciate their individual beauty especially up close.

As a child I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who were interested and knowledgable about plants and gardening. Both my parents and my aunt and uncle were avid gardeners and all four had a deep appreciation for nature. I often went for walks with my Dad in the early morning and he would point out wild flowers and different plants as we walked the land. My father was a butcher and a farmer and fattened his own cattle. As we walked accross a field he would point to clover or wild sorrel growing in amongst the grass and proudly proclaim he had never added anything to the soil apart from cow dung. 

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a bee enjoying the flower of the wild pea or vetch on the lane

We would walk the lane to his farm which and he would point out primroses, violets, cowslips and lady’s fingers. One of my favourite memories is of vetch or wild pea which in mid summer would ripen and yield a small hard black pea with a really strong taste. We would pick the wild sorrel and chew it as we followed the track made by the cattle that meandered accross his largest field. Another favourite time of year was late summer or mushroom season as we competed to see who could collect the most mushrooms. Dad would pick a long piece of grass with a seed head and thread it through the mushroom stems to carry them home. 

My mother would pick dandelion leaves and add them to our nightly summer salad telling us they were full of iron. My father would carefully pick them out and toss them onto her plate telling her she was the one that needed it most. She experimented with nettle soup which was delicious and to this day I’m always delighted to find the cure for a nettle sting generally growing right beside it in the form of a dock leaf. Although the nettle stings hurt the fun of finding a huge dock leaf and rubbing the offending area until your skin went green almost made up for it. She made white wine from elderflowers in summer and red wine from elderberries in the autumn. I now look forward every year to gathering huge handfuls of elderflowers to make the more innocuous elderflower cordial. We scoured the hedges in late summer for blackberries and I have the fondest of memories of going blackberrying with my Uncle John on a summers evening in the fields behind his house. In later years when I was working he faithfully gathered blackberries for me every august and froze them until I could come to collect them.  We gathered rose hips by the bag load to send to Africa. I was motivated to help as I felt sorry for people in a faraway land having to eat rose hips. It was only many years later I discovered in fact the rose hips were high in Vit C and used to make a syrup to help children in a famine ravaged world. Every year when I see the wild roses growing and later in the year the bright red hips form I think of all the ditches I was sent into as a child. These snapshots in time  stand out for me and I enjoy reminiscing as I take my daily wander on the lane. 

On my walk last week although its too early for the mushrooms or the blackberries there was a lot in bloom and a lot of interest and I enjoyed thoroughly the trip down memory lane as well as our own lane. 

Be someone’s garden angel

Recently published in the April newsletter of the Irish Garden Plant Society ( IGPS)

I met a fellow gardener recently and as we chatted she referred to someone who’d helped her  out as her ‘ guardian angel. ‘I was immediately struck by the thought that I’m lucky enough to have one of those too. Then I thought to myself she really she should be known as my’ garden angel’ for throughout my life she has guided me, encouraged me, supported me and been generous to a fault with all the plants she has given me.  When you’re starting out on your gardening journey it can be a little overwhelming. Too often people are put off by failures and they give up feeling inadequate and useless.  I’ve met so many people who say “ oh I’m not really a gardener” though I’d love to learn more. This I think is a shame as with a little encouragement and guidance we can all be better gardeners. I think I’m somewhere in the middle now between beginner and expert and I’m eager to continue learning. For example I’m not great on remembering latin names but have recently been inspired to at least try.

 For someone starting out on their gardening journey there’s a long and daunting list of things to be aware of. First you’ve to pick your site, plan your beds, get rid of weeds, improve the soil and pick your plants. Do you want trees, shrubs, perennials, a veg patch or the lot. Then there’s  the soil type whether you’ve acid, alkaline or neutral ,do you have  damp or dry conditions, is your site sheltered or exposed , is it shady or baking in full sun. The list is endless and if you’re hit with all this before you start you might just give up and concrete over the lot.  All of this can be a bit intimidating  for a new gardener who while enthusiastic might throw in the trowel ( if you pardon the pun ) without a little guidance.  Nowadays we’re lucky to have all that information at our fingertips and we can google to our hearts content . I however remember the days when my greatest gift was a copy of the RHS encyclopedia of garden plants and flowers and its sister the RHS encyclopedia of gardening.

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This wedding cake tree or ( Cornus controversa Variegata ) was aptly a wedding gift from Margaret. ( Photo: Richard Murphy )

 

I would pore over these at night time and it was an enjoyable if rather laborious process as I’d much prefer to be out in the actual garden digging and planting. I often tell the story of being handed graph paper to plan my dream garden. Ideally I should have taken all the pointers I’ve mentioned into consideration carefully planning it all in advance. Instead the graph paper went into a drawer and I started random planting. Enter my “ garden angel” Margaret a dear friend of my mother’s and a gardener who has probably forgotten more than I’ll ever learn.

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Margaret and I at the IGPS plant sale 2019

 When we moved to our dream house complete with a large garden she would arrive with a veritable treasure trove of slips, divisions or plants grown from seed. To me it was a bewildering collection of sad dejected looking plants all with labels and a passionate description about its eventual size  and all the information relevant to helping it settle in. She was hands on too and would roll up her sleeves and wander about with me looking for a suitable location in our absolute wilderness of 3 acres. She planted slips of snake bark maples about a foot high assuring me they would be magnificent in time, a tiny cutting of viburnum,  a division of Solomon’s  seal, huge dinner plate corms of Cyclamen hederifolium, small seedlings of Japanese wineberry, and countless perennials all from her garden .

She waded into our newly discovered natural pond and thrust a few divisions of water lilies  into its muddy bottom, she arrived with flag iris and marsh marigolds to colonise a rather ugly ditch. Another visit and pheasant berry and dogwoods were planted on the bank behind my pond. Rose cuttings, some of which she had taken from my mother’s garden were extra special and one year she accompanied me to my Uncle’s home before it was sold to dig up a very precious red rose. On that particular occasion the rose’s root snapped in half leaving a very dejected looking specimen which made me want to burst into tears and stamp my foot. Undeterred by both my tantrum and the broken root she inspected it and airily declared “oh don’t worry it’ll still grow.” She then uttered what has become my mantra which I now quote to others “ just remember everything WANTS to live dear.” We lovingly planted that rose with all the right conditions and it has totally rewarded her belief in it and blooms with its heady scent and velvety red perfection  every year.

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my aunt’s red rose now thriving in my garden

Over the past 17 years we’ve planted hedges, trees, shrubs, put in paths, new borders, patios and a veg patch. I’ve learned as I’ve gardened encouraged by those earlier successes. I’ve talked to many other experienced gardeners, visited open gardens, joined gardening clubs, googled plants and how to videos and read as much as I can. Nothing however really compares to that earlier instruction, generously given and her belief in me as a novice gardener. My garden is now maturing nicely and I’m finally  in a position to do what Margaret has done for me which is to divide plants, take cuttings and save seed and pass them on to encourage and nurture other budding gardeners. I’ve a few friends and neighbours in whom I recognize the gardening bug .I now in my turn am  giving  them some of my fairly sad looking pots assuring them that in 2 years you won’t recognize it if you do x,y and z .

I know  the slips and cuttings don’t have the instant impact of buying a plant from a garden centre but I like to think that in the long run it will have the edge  when it reminds people where they came from . An experienced gardener I met recently told me they had a similar mentor. To quote her “ a rather irascible man who decided I had to be educated and encouraged. “ I simply loved to hear that and hear about her gardening journey. We all learn about gardening in different ways but to have a mentor, someone who believes in you and encourages you and in my case watches with a keen interest and pride is a priceless gift. So take a budding gardener under your wing. Encourage them in any way you can and you’ll enjoy the giving as much as they will enjoy the receiving. So go on, encourage and inspire them and be someone’s “ Garden Angel .“ 

Gardening in strange times

                                                                   Gardening in strange times 

 

The garden has always been a place where one can forget everything except the job at hand. Plants are living things and as such absorb me totally in their care. My dear Uncle John a bachelor who lived a solitary life in the main, would often proclaim “ It’s hard to be depressed in the garden”. He was a great man for planting fruit and vegetables and had rhubarb, currant bushes, raspberry canes , potatoes and peas all fed by manure from the neighbouring cattle mart in Ashbourne. I have an image of him in my mind wheeling his wheelbarrow across a narrow plank over the ditch to collect the manure for his garden. He would put some in a barrel of water and let it stew for a few days and then upend the lot over his rhubarb. He trimmed hedges and cut his lawn with an old fashioned push mower. He lived with his sister until she went to work in London and he would tend her roses and plant wallflowers for her in perfect circular beds he made in the front lawn. He had plum and apple trees which in his words were “hanking with fruit”. I remember loving the Victoria plums and trying to climb to the very top where of course the best ones were. He would patiently and silently go to the shed and get his ladder, gently telling me not to fall while he himself would balance the ladder precariously against a branch and climb to the top to rescue the ripest, sweetest plum. When I planted Victoria plums here I made sure to plant them on dwarf root stock so I never missed any. I think of my Uncle John a lot in these days of self isolation and try to channel his patience and stoicism . 

 

While we’re lucky to have a large garden even the smallest of patches can bring us joy and more important peace. Weeding is surprisingly satisfying and even an hour or so a day gives a great result. The garden is unaware of the pandemic, it soldiers on giving of its bounty and we as gardeners reap what we sow in the very literal sense. Work we did last autumn is rewarding us now as precious bulbs push up and light up the garden with colour.

 

Now as we tidy up the dead foliage of our perennials we are heartened by the signs of life and new shoots hiding underneath. We’ve hopefully by now pruned our roses and the new growth is a vibrant red reaching for the sky and nurturing the glorious blooms we will enjoy in just a few short weeks.

 

Shrubs which flower on their bare branches are coming into bud with cherry and apple blossom about to warm our hearts. Pieris are putting on a show with clusters of flowers giving way to fiery red new growth. Hyacinths are filling the garden with their heady scent. Tulips are opening day by day each colour competing to be the most glorious.

 

Acers are putting on their new leaves in various shades of reds and greens and as I gaze out the window I see the bright blues of forget me not forming a carpet underneath the snowy stems of the silver birch.  Everything in the garden has its time to shine and it is continuing its journey and is a stabilizing force in these difficult times. The birds are nest building, the crows raucous as they complain when I garden underneath. As always there is a curious robin nearby as I turn over the earth and the blue tits, blackbirds and goldfinches dart to and from the birdfeeders , tiny flashes of colour making me smile.

 

Everywhere there is life from the earthworms, to the welcome sound of solitary bees and newts and frogs spawn in the pond. The distant drone of tractors remind me that farmers are continuing their valuable work, tending to the land, taking care of animals, planting crops and it’s a comforting sound from behind our house. 

 

I’ve always appreciated the garden and now it is my solace. I hope you enjoy a few photos from April in the garden and some of my dear Uncle John, a wise man indeed.

Gardening is more than just plants

( An article recently published in the IGPS newsletter. )

Anyone who knows me will be aware of my love of gardening. When I try to analyse it there is never a clear picture of why that is. On the down side its hard work. Gardening in all sorts of weather spent dodging rain showers, being  buffeted about by the wind or being scorched by the sun ( I just added that last one in for the fun of it )

Then there’s the physical work , digging ground that is too wet, too dry, too sandy, too heavy or  too weedy . The part where you wrestle with plants that attack you as you try to prune them like roses, raspberries,pyracantha,berberis or holly. Don’t they realise you’re trying to help them stay healthy. Then of course our favourite pastime of weeding. The annuals that pop up like shepherds purse, willow herb and groundsel that though easy to weed arrive with alarming speed and spread everywhere unless you get them early before they seed about.  Buttercups with their cunning method of sending out arching slender stems that root as they go ending up a metre away from the parent. Dandelions, and docks that send down roots to Australia are another bane and of course the weeds that makes every gardener tremble in their boots like bindweed or robin run the hedge. I’m sure you’re begining to think I actually don’t like gardening at all but I’m only teasing.

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I’ve given up trying to weed out celandine which does die away naturally by June

The list of what makes me love gardening is so much longer. Firstly it gets you outdoors in all sorts of weather. I’ve spent many a pleasant morning in the garden with one eye on the darkening sky and one eye on the job at hand and feel that great sense of achievement when I complete my task ahead of a shower. I’m lucky enough to have a greenhouse that means of course I can sow seeds, divide plants, pot on plants or even tidy up though that’s really pushing it. Its important to also take time to walk about your garden and inspect and enjoy the results of your labours though I find it impossible not to bend to pull a weed or deadhead a flower thats gone over. We call it the driveway dance as you walk, bend, pull then repeat. In the few good summer days is there anything more rewarding than to sit on your patio and enjoy the fragrance,colours and sounds of a happy garden.

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It’s nice to relax on the patio after hours of gardening

There’s a lovely quote attributed to Audrey Hepburn that says “ To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow “ and I really believe that to be true. We sow seeds, we divide plants and nurture them willing them to go on and thrive. We take slips and watch over them eagle eyed until that eureka moment where we see the signs of new life as new roots appear at the base of the pot and the cutting puts on healthy top growth. We plan borders and colour schemes, we trim, prune, mow, strim, deadhead, feed and nurture our plants along, taking care of their individual needs until they delight us with blooms or striking leaf colour. We plant bulbs on chilly autumn days content in the knowledge they will reward us in Spring from the shy hello of a snowdrop to the full blown explosion of colour that shouts “we are tulips look at us.”

Oh the delight of it all is what keeps me gardening but one thing more than anything else brings me such joy that my heart is filled to bursting with it. I know we all buy plants wherever we can but it is the plants that remind us of people that are the most special. I’ve many plants in my garden from loved ones gone before us who gardened in their lifetimes. Their plants are a connection to them that tugs at the heartstrings and flood us with memories. I’ve got snowdrops my parents dug up from an abandoned farmhouse in the 1950’s, roses my Dad planted for my mother who adored their fragrant blooms, rhubarb my beloved uncle tended to for most of his 96 years, slips of scores of plants from my mother’s best friend and plants that have been gifted to me by fellow gardeners equally obsessed with the joy that is gardening.

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The rhubarb I got from my Uncle John which has been in the family for about 80 years

So those plants are not just plants to me they are reminders of gardeners in my family, they speak to me of a generous friend, they bring back a memory of a visit to a fellow gardener who delighted me with a slip of a rare or unusual plant. Each memory is a perfect prism reflecting a moment captured in time. Emotions are tied to these plants and give us focus as we tend to their care and nurture them , yes getting cold fingers and toes and the odd scratch from a thorn but mostly the pleasure of seeing them grow and each enjoying their moment in the sun. So we gardeners can  reflect on the fact that we are a link to our past and hopefully to a future generation of gardeners. 

Raising Hedgehogs

About 8 years ago I raised 4 baby hedgehogs which was a steep learning curve and such an honour. We found a disturbed nest with 5 little ones strewn about the ditch. One had died and the other 4 were tiny so I gathered them up and brought to our vet.In the wild about 20% of the hoglets die before they even leave the nest and once a nest is disturbed the mother will not return condemning them to certain death.  The vet dusted them down for fleas ( fleas that live on hedgehogs will not live on dogs or humans )  and gave them each an antibiotic and I was sent home with a heated mat and instructions to feed them every 4 hours with warm goats milk as they cannot tolerate dairy.

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4 tiny orphaned hedgehogs
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They soon advanced to feeding themselves, goats milk and tinned cat food

We kept them in a cardboard box in our kitchen and I fed them initially from a tiny medicine dropper which was time consuming and fraught with prickles from the growing spines. I learned to wear a leather glove on my left hand, pick one up with my thumb under their chin to prevent their natural urge to curl into a ball and once they smelled the milk survival instinct took over.

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The one in the foreground was a whopper and the tiny one on the right I had to continue to feed as he was pushed out of the way
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they napped after their feed

As they were only tiny about 10 days old I also had to help them with the other end too. Like kittens their mother normally does this so A quick phone call to a hedgehog rescue and I was informed that a cotton bud soaked in oil and rubbed on their nether regions soon did the trick. The result was  masses of green poo which stank to high heaven. They quickly adapted to life in my kitchen but soon became way too smelly. As they were a later litter I read that unless they achieved a weight of 550 grams by November they were unlikely to survive their winter hibernation. Survival rates even then are low with many unlikely to see their first birthday but I had to at least give them a fighting chance.

 

They advanced to a larger box, self feeding and were dispatched outdoors to the shed. Tinned cat food, more goats milk and bananas became their regular diet. As August approached I stopped the goats milk and  added wild blackberries to start to introduce them to food they would be able to find themselves as I know cat food and bananas would be in short supply in the natural habitat. I knew they ate slugs so set off on a nightly slug hunt with my torch. The first time I gave them slugs they turned their backs on them totally indifferent and I was afraid I’d completely interfered with nature but within seconds thousands of years of instinct kicked in and they suddenly made little piggy snorting noises and literally ran over the slugs in their enthusiasm . A boon for my garden as I think in the following 6 weeks I must have gathered up a few generations of slugs for their nightly feed. As they were getting bigger we made a larger den for them and placed it inside the high walls of one of our ruined outbuildings. Hedgehogs can scale walls of 6 feet or more but these were at least 16 feet high and kept them contained.

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This was the largest one just before his release
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The next one who weighed in eventually at 795 grams

I was quite touched as a lot of my neighbours came to see them , one who was an elderly farmer who said he wanted to see them as he’d never seen a live one, only the squashed ones on the road.

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By Mid October they were all a good weight the smallest weighing in at 650 grams, the largest 850  and they were ready for their release. Padraic had made 2 little wooden hedgehog houses with a long interior corridor veering left and then right to allow the hedgehogs in and keep larger predators such as foxes out. Hedgehogs live solitary lives once they leave the nest only getting together to mate so one was given to a friend in Dublin with a large walled garden, one was given to the vet who’s friend had a large chicken farm where they eventually released him and the remaining 2 stuck around here for a few nights coming back initially for the food I left out then they disappeared. They can travel miles every  night in their search for food so who knows where they ended up. Although I was sorry to see them go hedgehogs do not thrive in captivity so I’m hoping that years of instinct will have taken over and that they survived . I read somewhere that they live for about 3 years if they survive the various hazards they face such as cars or eating poisoned slugs or falling into ponds or drains, the list is endless.

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The tiniest of them had to be hand fed a bit longer
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I would put my hand in and allow them to crawl onto it
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love the pointy noses

A few years ago our dog Lily was out in the garden barking furiously and dancing around what looked like a huge football. I went to investigate and found it was a very large hedgehog rolled up in a ball spikes fully up. We put the dog in and I got my gardening gloves and placed him gently back into the hedge line and he meandered off. He came back for 3 nights in a row despite the dog and then disappeared. Maybe it was one of my babies who knows but I was glad to see that hedgehogs are still here in my garden.

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This guy was huge and curled into a tight ball
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I picked him up so I could place him out of the dogs reach into the hedge
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He stayed curled up for a bit but when I checked 5 minutes later he was gone

I’ve created a few safe areas for them to overwinter by placing piles of logs into a corner and we put their old wooden house under some branches in another spot. Our garden is surrounded by farmland with little or no traffic so I’m hoping that for some it will be a safe haven. It was a highlight of my life to raise the 4 hedgehog babies or hoglets as they’re known. I have no way of knowing if they survived but I like to hope that they did.

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we’re slowly adding to this log pile at the very back of the garden near the bank and the hedge line