23 May 2012

All that glisters is not gold

Lady's Mantle Alchemilla mollis
My garden is a treasure trove on an early May morning. A mist overnight, still humid morning air, the promise of warmth at last and the Lady's Mantle bejewelled (be-dewelled?): each gem a glistening droplet caught on a fine hair.

Lady's Mantle, Alchemilla mollis, can become a bit over-exuberant, seeding itself all over the place, but I wouldn't be without it, and on a morning when the leaves are like this, I forgive and forget its louche habits. Anyway, my garden is full of self-seeders and I love the serendipity of having them in there - Briza minor (a small annual grass that has seed heads that remind us of tiny Trilobites), Meconopsis cambrica (the Welsh poppy that my father gave me years ago, with a health warning that I'd curse him for it as it spreads so freely... I don't, it does, and still I love it: the egg-yolk yellow heads punctuating the garden, showing up in wholly unexpected places), Carex pendula, and oregano, which truly is a bit of a weed, but one that becomes its very own bee-loud glade in high summer.

Away from the garden, there was a lot of activity on the allotment over the last little while. We now have something in each of the four 'beds', though not all the seeds that I've sown are showing up yet; but with the cold weather we've had in May, who could be surprised? We've also added some netting as a fence of sorts for shelter from the wind, the beginnings of a compost heap, a tiny pond (a puddle really), and DM is still digging away, realising now the horrors of scutch grass and bindweed. The county council have also been busy, some of which busyness we could do without, to be honest - I won't get into it here. Anyway, many thanks for all the hard work to DM, BvG and SOT. So far, we've spuds, onions, broad beans, snow peas, peas, courgettes and lettuce holding their own. I took a chance and put in some corn too. The early potatoes got burnt by a late frost in mid-May (yes, you read that correctly, mid-May) but I think they'll recover. It's very clayey soil, I've never worked anything like it before; heavy clods when it's wet, hard as concrete when it's dry. It's stony too, in parts, and I begin to mutter quotes from Kavanagh under my breath ("stony grey soil...") when I'm grappling with it. We're going to need a lot of compost to set it right. Still, we've come a long way from the weedy plot we first tackled in March:

Remember this? A weedy plot in early Spring
DM did mighty work digging it over (March)
The meitheal put in the beds and here they are this week;
potatoes and onions coming up
As well as beds, every allotment needs chairs and a table
for the visitors: just about visible here (thanks SOT)
The puddle - we're hoping some frogs
will move it and feast on slugs
I'm enjoying it though: sometimes I'm up there on my own, sometimes with a meitheal of us, each doing something different. The physical work is different from the day-job, and the rhythms of weeding, digging, and hauling water feel good.

It wasn't all work this week: we also headed out to the Wicklow hills to stretch the eyes beyond suburban horizons that often feel too close; the gorse/furze was bright and letting loose its sweet coconut scent onto the air, the water in the cool places was clear, the ferns healthy, and in the remains of a cut forest, there was a reminder that life constantly regenerates. 

The yellow flare of furze
Water cools
Begin again
It's an early post this week as we're off to Prague for a few days. Looking forward to it...

18 May 2012

The darling buds of May

An Sceach Gheal (the bright thorn), Whitethorn, Hawthorn, Maybush, the May... is there any one plant more redolent of May than the small tree that carries its name? The creamy blossom foaming in the hedgerows--defining the fields, hiding the ditches, providing shelter and home for the small things, for the birds.
Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna
Traditionally, some hawthorn hedgerows would have been layered (chop partly through a vertical branch, lay it horizontally, weave the resulting new vertical shoots through the horizontal branches, repeat) to form impenetrable boundaries to keep sheep and cattle where you wanted them. There was an amazing example of just such a hedge near a friend's house in Westmeath (where, apparently, about a quarter of hedges used to be managed this way, now only about 2%), but it's mostly gone now. Unlayered hawthorns have their own place and it's in hedgerows all over the country that we see the trees signalling that May is truly here. In autumn, their small fruits will turn the same hedges to garnet and ruby shades glowing in the October light.

It's not only in hedgerows that you'll find hawthorns: still there are many 'lone bushes' around the country - hawthorn trees that won't be cut down by those who own the land for fear of what might happen... folk tradition had it that the lone bushes are jealously guarded by the Sídhe and misfortune will befall those who interfere with them. I remember when I was doing fieldwork in Co. Cavan in the late seventies that I'd occasionally come across a small field with a lone bush in the middle and the pasture or meadow or crop would have to grow (and be harvested) around it. Some of these trees have become even more significant and have become shrines of a sort. Here's one on the border of Dublin and Wicklow (thanks for showing it to me all those years ago LB!):

Lone Bush
The other May messenger is the humble and ubiquitous Cow Parsley, or Queen Anne's Lace, as some more finely call it.
Cow Parsley, Queen Anne's Lace, Anthriscus sylvestris
Iz checks the Cow Parsley by the local stream
Like the hawthorn, seeing Cow Parsley along paths, roadsides, the banks of streams and in fields, reminds us that early summer has arrived. This year we have needed more reminders than usual as we've had a (long) run of cold and dull weather.

Messing about in boats
Still, last Saturday was a sunny day and we headed to the Grand Canal where a friend was bringing her boat from Kildare all the way in to the Grand Canal Basin as part of the annual Dublin Boat Rally. We had enormous fun making our way through the locks, pootling along at a sedate pace, cheering on the workers perched high on the pylons at a sub-station we passed on the way, and just generally messing about in boats.

The route in to the city passes through some less than privileged areas, but along the canal the whitethorn was in blossom and the locals' ponies were enjoying the May sunshine. The locks are amazing things, and I made a silent offering of thanks to those skilled 'navvies' who built the canals - the stonework is so well wrought, the locks are an engineer's delight and now the lock gates are bryophyte heaven. Lovely to have such a change of pace from the normal frenetic travel that goes on around Dublin. Thanks for a great day, Skipper Gráinne.

Bryophyte heaven - a lock gate
Pile On!
Grand Canal Pony and the May

Allium sp. Purple Sensation
While all that gallivanting was going on, things moved along in the garden at home. In spite of the cold weather, the alliums are escaping from their buds, the Rheum leaves are complementing the Lamium rather nicely and nothing seems to slow down the aphids or the slugs... one of the latter wasn't even put off by finding itself in the pond, deciding to rasp its way through a Water Hawthorn leaf, and another found the hosta in the pot! All have been moved on since I took the photos this week, but I know there are plenty more where they came from...

Rheum joins the party, Lamium having a good time already
Damn thing found my Hosta
A new way to dine - slug gets to grip with a Water Hawthorn

11 May 2012

A lean and hungry look

I don't know which one of them looked leaner, and in truth, in the suburbs, neither of them will be too hungry, but early last Sunday morning I saw a rook chasing a fox across grass all the way into the grove of trees where the fox resides. The rook was definitely winning: the fox hightailing it (literally, the way they carry their 'brush') as quickly as it could to the safety of its covert. And all of this going on right next to a community school carpark: the wild things hang on as best they can.

Having written that last phrase, of course Maurice Sendak came to mind; sadly he died this week, on 08 May. This video is particularly for my sons, now two wonderful young men: hope you remember how many times we read and enjoyed this when you were small, guys! A mighty book, and this is a lovely adaptation, beautifully read:

Last weekend, we decided we'd had enough cabin fever and so we escaped to Kilmacurragh Arboretum, where we had the good sense to arrive just as the wonderful Philip Quested was starting a tour of the grounds, well, of the trees really: and this is a man who loves and knows his trees. There were only four of us on the walk (the weather has continued to be awful, so people stayed away in droves), and he is the loveliest of guides - knowledgeable, passionate about his work, articulate and engaging. I won't go through all of what he said, but I can tell you that there are some champion trees there, some amazing rhododendrons, and that the garden is involved in the International Conifer Conservation Programme (it has some Wollemi pines growing slowly but surely on the front 'lawn'). 

Here's one of Philip's favourite trees:
Okay, I admit it looks a bit unprepossessing in the photo. Here it is a little closer. Does the bark remind you of anything?
Cloud Podocarp, Podocarpus nubigenus
Like this, perhaps:
Fishing nets on Roundstone pier. (Summer 2007, taken by BvG).
Apparently in its native region in Patagonia, this species grows in difficult conditions with frequent high winds. It twist and braids its trunk for added strength, just like ropes and metal hawsers. Wonderful. Of course many of our human 'inventions' are simply clever adaptations of the ways that plants have shaped themselves to their environment. Velcro is an example that most of us know, its hooks copied from the burrs on plants like burdocks and goosegrass, Galium aparine (which is also called cleavers, appropriately enough, as a certain schnauzer finds to her cost on most walks these mornings...). And what about self-cleaning products based on the Lotus Effect... that would be the superhydrophobicity of the lotus leaf, to be exact :-). Brilliant stuff!

Well that's some of the science, what about the poetry?  Since it's May, it almost has to be bluebells, and I promised that I'd return to Mr Kavanagh this month. Have a read. Have a look:

Kilmacurragh bluebells
Antrim bluebells (taken May 2011, by BvG)

Local bluebells, hybridised with the Spanish invaders
And here's blue from farther afield, a Himalayan poppy that bloomed in my garden this week:
Himalayan Poppy, Meconopsis x sheldonii
While the tone is blue, we can't ignore Ms Mitchell:

After that, beautiful though it is, I think I need to finish on a lighter note, and who better: Iz checks that the ramsons are blooming at last.

Iz and blooming ramsons, Allium ursinum

04 May 2012

Get thee to a fernery

At last it's MAY! No question about it: the best month of the year. Monty Don remarks in his Ivington Diaries: "when I die I shall go to May" and in my imagination too it's close to heaven. Another garden writer (I think it was Frank Ronan) claimed that all our efforts in the garden the rest of the year are some sort of attempt to reproduce the perfection that is May... and I think he might be right. (As an aside, apologies to those of you who have clicked the links above and found them almost useless - you'll have to take it up with the venerable authors themselves; as of today, neither site is very informative. You'll also find both authors on wiki).

Much as we might try though, the achingly fresh greens we see at this time of the year can never be repeated: the lime green of horse chestnuts, the bronzy green of new oak leaves, but most of all that startling bright green that looks best when the newly minted oak, beech, sycamore and (finally!) ash trees are lit by the sun and stand out against the backdrop of what my Da used to call a 'haymaker'. Haymakers are those heavy bruised-purple clouds, the colour of bilberries, carrying serious rainshowers that will soak the ground, bring out the early summer scents and will clear away leaving behind bright clean air, vivid colours and sunshine. Sometimes, as a bonus, they allow godbeams to shine through. I'm writing about this today, not because I've seen any May haymakers yet, but because I know I will...

In fact a mixture of bad weather and bad luck with health at the moment have meant there hasn't been too much out and about-ing, so we're firmly grounded in erica's garden this week.

First off, the ferns! They're doing the May thing, in spades... I have to confess I don't have their names (I think I've said before I'll never make a committed plantswoman or collector), but have a look anyway. All of these are under the witch hazel in my back garden and very happy they are too.

Eh... a fern

And a fossil fern
(a well-chosen gift, thanks B)
I started growing ferns for a few reasons. The first, and best, is that I love them. I like that they're ancient plants: pre-dating the angiosperms (or flowering plants) and so reproducing not by seeds but by spores, carried in sporangia that form lines, cups or clumps on the back of the fronds later in the year. I love the huge variations in texture and even, yes, in colour, especially now as they unfurl. Look at the ruddy fiddleheads on that first fern and the sharp bright green of the satiny hart's tongue. And what about the baroque finery of the tatting fern, the almost metallic sheen of the Japanese Painted Fern and finally the cool elegance of the Adiantum (bottom right).

Athyrium filix-femina 'Fritzelliae' Irish tatting fern
Phyllitis sp. Hart's Tongue

Athyrium niponicum, Japanese Painted Fern
Adiantum sp.

The second reason I started to grow ferns years ago was that I wanted to grow hostas, but because I have the most voracious slugs in the county and I don't wage chemical warfare, there was no point. I didn't much care for the 'lace' effect wrought on the hostas overnight by hungry slugs, as opposed to the quilted effect that they were supposed to have.

And so I opted for ferns, which the slugs steer clear of, and which also provide a gorgeous foliage effect.  I now grow one gorgeous hosta in a pot where I can limit the damage somewhat, and if it gets too tatty I can hide its (and my) shame by simply moving the pot. My fern 'collection' started with three small ferns (including the hart's tongue and tatting fern) that cost about €2 each. I've since added some other beauties as I find them hard to resist. I caved in and bought one tree fern about four years ago (from Mount Venus, where else?), but that astonishingly cold winter in 2010-11 did for it...

Ferns, Solomon's Seal and Bleeding Heart
Ferns are beautiful, reliable and happy to rub shoulders with other woodlandy plants without making any fuss. They're tough, and will take dog's abuse (literally: the ferns I have were regularly trampled by two labradors for years; I'm sure a lightfooted schnauzer now poses few problems). All in all, what's not to like?

Enkianthus sp., grateful and graceful
Complementing those ruddy fiddleheads and the pink flush on some nearby Tellima, the Enkiathus that I moved into the ground from a pot last autumn has shown its gratitude rather nicely. It wasn't very happy in the pot, where I'd had it because I didn't know where to place it. But then I saw Enkiathus growing very happily as an understorey plant in Mount Usher gardens and made a mental note to move it later on. For once I remembered!

And in with all the ferniness, the False Spikenard is now starting to bloom frothily and it fills the air around it with a beautiful scent in the evening - a scent that still lingers in the early morning when Iz and I return from our walk.  You may remember this plant got a mention in an earlier post when it was just starting to grow. And here it is now:
Smilicina racemosa, False Spikenard, starts to bloom 04 May
Finally, although we didn't get out walking or hiking this week, here's a video of a small waterfall in Glendine, Co Antrim, taken on my phone in May last year when we were walking there. It comes with birthday wishes for two keen hikers on two different continents: Happy Birthday MM and BL

River in Glendine from Erica cinerea on Vimeo.