26 March 2012

Sunshine and spuds

Spring forward! The clocks went forward one hour on Sunday morning, we're officially in summertime now, and oh it felt like it this weekend... On Sunday, temperatures reached 18-20C and I think all of Ireland was out in the fresh air and sunshine, astonished and delighted, whether planting spuds or licking ice-cream cones or thinking about jumping into the Forty Foot. Lots of happy heads around the place. And look at this beautiful blossom, sent to me by a friend (you have to love those smart phones); thanks for the lovely photo LB.

The best way to see blossom - with blue sky  behind
Here's a less skilled photo, but it was taken from the bicycle, in a rush as about 20 Italian teenage students were about to walk into the frame, chattering loudly and happily, none of them glancing up at the delicate perfection above. This tree is a favourite of mine and I cycle a different route at this time of the year just so I can see it. It looks just perfect for about a week at most and so doesn't meet the requirements of the trees that many will recommend for small gardens--multi-season interest and so on--but really, wouldn't you have it in your garden just for that one week of perfection?

Worth a detour
It was all about the plants for me this week. The horse chestnut is making the most of the early spring warmth, galloping along from sticky buds I showed here a few weeks ago to limp-wristed lime green this week.

02 March

09 March

21 March
In the woods in our park, wild white wood anemones and what I suppose are garden escapes (fancier blue ones) are in bloom. In the early morning when I took these photos, there wasn't yet enough sunlight to coax them into opening up. A short while later though, I know they would have been persuaded: petals flared open like the flung apart limbs of a sleeping baby.

Wood anemones
More wood anemones, probably from a garden nearby
The false spikenard in the back garden (Smilicina racemosa, although I think it has been re-named recently) is growing almost before my eyes now, each evening the tight buds have pushed a bit higher above the ground, uncrinkling as quickly as they can once they reach about 8cm or so. In May (or even earlier this year, at the current rate of knots) each stem will carry a frothy head of creamy blossom which will delight us with a beautiful scent on early summer evenings. For now, we're more than happy to have the gorgeous Spring perfume of narcissi in the front garden.
False spikenard growing by the day
The greenhouse is getting to be a busy place - the tomato seedlings are doing okay so far, although the <expletive deleted> slugs got one or two of them; the basil seedlings have moved from a windowsill into the glasshouse too and are getting their first true leaves; the lettuce is safe from the slugs so far and I've also got Cosmos and Nicotiana seedlings on the go, which feels nicely frivolous.

But the real action this week was up at the allotment. My son has done mighty work up there, turning very heavy clods of clayey soil and scutch grass, preparing the way for the rest of us (thanks DM!). So there we were on Saturday: a
meitheal  of us bashing clay off clods of old scutch grass, building frames for raised beds, sifting through the soil for the dreaded white roots that'll spring into a million more scutch seedlings, and--at last--planting some potatoes! Sharpe's Express: earlies. I've never grown spuds before but as they form one of my earliest gardening memories--watching my Da dig them up and then the wonder at how different they tasted--I'm keen to give them a go. On Sunday the work continued and I planted some red onions. There'll be broad beans, runner beans and peas of different types too I hope, over the next few weeks. Many thanks to all the helpers - you know who you are: I'd be lost without you all. Here's how the allotment is moving from weedy wilderness to something that may provide us with our very own homegrown produce.

Oh no... on this we're going to try to grow vegetables?
Thanks DM!
Putting a bit of order into the picture; spuds and onions in

18 March 2012

Dog and Donegal

Off to Donegal for the weekend - a welcome break from the quotidian. One glance at the beach (with a schnauzer for scale - yes, she's back LB) and you'll know why it's a place we love to go. Out walking with Iz on Saturday morning, I checked out the bog on the hill behind the house and found this beautiful tiny shrub with its subtly coloured flowers -- very boggy colours, repeated again in the sphagnum (S. rubellum). Bogs are full of rubies and garnets and ambers in the winter, showing up against the silvers and golds of the lichens and winter-dead grasses and sedges. Of course come mid-late summer, the heathers (yes, including Erica cinerea) will reassert themselves, turning the beiges of winter to one of 'heavens' embroidered cloths' of purple and gold. 

Spring comes to the bog

Sphagnum rubellum and lichen
Over the couple of days we also spent time on the local beaches and enjoyed the bright spring sunshine and the incoming tide. On rocks at the end of one of the beaches, I found hunkered limpets along with rimes of salt and tiny barnacles. (And yes, I did have a moment as I wrote that when I tried to imagine how a gastropod would actually hunker down.) The water here was quiet, but from just beyond the rocks, the thunder of the atlantic surf rumbled and roared... The limpets in the photograph are fairly high and pointed (like tiny Errigals) as they're in a relatively protected part of the shore, but those limpets that find themselves on wild shores with harsh storms and intense wave action keep a much lower profile. 
Limpets hunker down
Winters in Donegal are harsh affairs - even mild winters such as this one will have their fair share of winter storms and cruel Atlantic winds. We were amazed to see the changes on Dooey, where winter storms (or maybe just one) had scoured the beach, cut into the base of the dunes in a way we hadn't see before and deposited a lot of nylon ropes, bits of nets, old fish crates and the inevitable random plastic detritus. 

Iz and a rope that's just too-o-o much
On the sheltered machair behind the dunes, we saw hardy cattle--some of them with tiny calves keeping close--resolutely pulling on 'scant croppings harsh with salt of the sea'.  Along these Atlantic shores, the salt is as much a problem as the cold or wet and this winter has  taken its toll a little on a willow we planted here last spring. It's a Salix gracilistyla var. Melanostachys, a gorgeous thing with black and red catkins. But it's holding firm. Both it and an alder we planted the year before are settling in nicely into really damp land at the base of a hill covered with hazel scrub: the same hill Iz and I walk up to reach the bog beyond. 

Of course in gardening terms, this is the weekend in Ireland when early spuds should be going into the ground and gardeners in general are busy busy in tunnel and greenhouse and taking over sunny window sills. My tomato seedlings all have their first true leaves now, and I transplanted some of them from the seed trays into pots. Hope they survive without my TLC - a helpful son is keeping an eye (thanks DM). 

So yes, I should have been gardening, but yes too, it's good to go west, it's good to stretch the eyes to farther horizons, it's good to see fragments of rainbows as the March weather throws some showers at us, it's good to see the Milky Way at night, it's good to see the sun come up behind the hills of Donegal. 

Thanks for a lovely weekend, CQ, SOT and of course BvG. 
March always surprises
Happy Iz


11 March 2012

Videos and vacations

Drunk with the success of adding a sound file last week (well, alright a link to a sound file), I thought I'd try video this week. Here are alder catkins on an early February morning, dangling like gorgeous earrings and moving gently in the morning breeze. This clip runs for less than a minute, and I recorded it on a phone (in February 2011); you'll hear nearby traffic in the background. It's just another way of saying there are things to see and enjoy even in fairly mundane situations.

It's a rough (very rough) approach to what the Quiet American would have us do:
Take a one-minute vacation from the life you are living.
One-minute vacations are unedited recordings of somewhere, somewhen. Sixty seconds of something else. 
Some of the recordings on that site are wonderful. I'd recommend it.

Okay, back from vacations to other places and times, this week saw beautiful weather again, hampered a little for me by a temporary injury that means I can't DIG! And it's March... And every gardener knows that March is when the bug really bites. Happily, my son is doing great work up on the allotment (thanks DM): I'm just pointing at the ground and then retiring home to so some faffing in the garden with a hand trowel. The injury has meant some wakeful nights, one of which gave me the chance to appreciate the garden at night lit by a full moon. It's a different and more enchanting place, accompanied at the moment by the constant rhythm of frog 'song'. The breakfast bench in the garden (it gets the morning sun from April to September) is also perfectly placed to be soaked in moonlight when the time is right. Not bad...

Hellebore Days at Mount Venus Nursery
Other gardening joys this week have been a trip to Mount Venus Nursery for their Hellebore Days - lots of delightful plants on show and, of course, for sale. One of the purchases I made was a beautiful Viola odorata, which I can confirm smells like Love Heart sweets (remember those?) as Monty Don remarks in one of his entries in The Ivington Diaries. It's in the ground already, under the Enkiathus, near the Witch Hazel in the back garden. Hope it settles in well. There'll be other purchases to go in too, and I'm also faced with the dilemma of where to put the lovely Trillium rivale, given to me by a fellow member of the AGS: they're running a mentoring scheme this year and I decided to give it a go (thanks BM). The Trillium and a Draba longisiliqua (the yellow-flowered one in the photo below) are my two trial specimens. I'm a bit nervous about how well, or not, I'll look after them, but I won't learn how to do it unless I give it a go! (There's a glimpse at a poet's view of a Trillium here).
Alpine and woodland plants surrendered into my care
Away from the garden this week, we ventured down to the shoreline, walking under boulder clay cliffs - left behind tens of thousands of years ago as the glaciers that filled the Irish Sea and covered most of Ireland finally melted, leaving behind a hotch-potch of silt and sand and cobbles and boulders, all dumped unceremoniously and now being scoured by the Irish Sea, bit by crumbling bit.
Boulder clay cliffs
Amazing to think of about two kilometres of ice pressing down on the very point where that photo was taken. The ice that scraped along the Irish Sea has left lots of clues about its journey, of which more another time, but here's one them: a cobble of Carboniferous limestone, 'chock-full of fossils' as our first-year lecturer used to say. Most of them are crinoids, or sea-lilies, close relatives of sea-urchins.

Chock full of fossils
Two things to finish up with this week: one is RED! The friend who owns this sculpture wondered if it would end up in the blog this week (and here it is CQ). Looks rather well in my garden, no? :-) Especially with the quince in blossom in the background. It's there only for a few days before it moves on to its new home; its creator is John Burke, who has well known sculptures around the country.
And finally, in anticipation of a trip to beautiful Donegal next weekend, a 19-second vacation; try this one with headphones if you can.

03 March 2012

Punctuation and presents

It's a frog's life... After the few weeks of frenzy, things seems to have settled down in amphibian arcadia. The spawn is now left to fend for itself; no harried parents worrying about night feeds, homework, study, too many beers and what time did you get home last night? In the pond near the house, the spawn I transferred from the little pondlet has matured to a series of commas; fresher spawn remains as full stops for now. Not stopped at all of course, although perhaps the cold weather forecast for this week may slow things down a little. 
(again, thanks for the photo, BvG)

Frogs aren't the only ones with a spring in their step. Have a listen to this songthrush claiming his neck of the woods from the branches of a willow tree by our local stream.

B made a brief visit to Holland this week and came back armed with presents - a gorgeous little book on Allotments (bought in Architectura & Natura, one of the nicest bookshops in Amsterdam) and a new camera for me. Very kind. 

The Allotments book is timely -- tempted out by the gorgeous weather this week (we've had the warmest February in 14 years) and by the fact that suddenly it's March, I headed up to the allotment to see the lie of the land; literally. And the lie of the land is not the problem... the healthy growth of scutch grass and creeping buttercup is. Worse still, I know there's bindweed lurking there too. I'm sharing the allotment with a friend and it's all new to me and more than a little daunting to be honest. Happily, the day I went up I met our neighbour Stephen--an experienced nurseryman and allotment holder--who filled me in on some of the allotment news, gave tips on what to do when confronted with such a Sisyphean task ("don't ever look up at what's left, concentrate on how much you have dug already") and introduced Izzy to his dog Daithi. His plot is also an inspiration. It was altogether a lovely start. I'm planning to take it in small steps - some spuds in soon to break in the soil and provide tasty goodness in the summer and there'll be some other bits and bobs too of course, but most of this year will be preparation. I want to put soft fruit in there in the autumn: raspberries, gooseberries (just for the gooseberry and elderflower jelly that I make each summer), redcurrants, strawberries. Yum. And I also want to work out a rotation system of sorts (brassicas, legumes, roots, onions). Busy times ahead! The good news is, there's a son willing to be bribed into some of the hard digging and a good friend who's willing to share the work and the produce (looking forward to it guys!). 

The warm weather of the last month has meant that we've a really early spring this year. I know that with climate change our weather has lost its innocence, but still I find it hard not to bask in the unseasonal warmth, and I'm not the only one. The fat sticky buds of the Horse Chestnut are opening (always the first: being a Turkish immigrant, this tree doesn't know about the dangers of late spring frosts in Ireland and meanwhile the Ash is holding tight); the squills are spreading their blue mantle ever wider; daffs and other spring flowers are early; bumble bees are lurching unsteadily through the warm spring air; early blossoms are out; and I was stopped in my tracks by the delicious lemony scent of my now blooming witch hazel when I got back from my walk the other morning. 

Horse Chestnut buds starts to unfurl

Scilla verna, revisited

Spring comes into the house
Early blossom in the park

Finally this week, for a glimpse of a different spring ("...spring is climbing down the crystalline ladder of rain") see the poem Perfume can pass through bars... by Abdul Samay Hamed that I've included on a new page on the blog.