27 January 2013

Lapwings above, yellows below

Imagine an animated Le Broquy Táin print: now you have in your mind's eye how lapwings look whirling and wheeling through a winter sky, floating on and fighting the fierce wind, descending down to cold wetlands before rising again in drifts and swirls, the sun silvering their white breasts.

The Brent geese, who came from who knows where, looked positively pedestrian beside them.

A bright morning found us on Kilcoole beach today, enjoying the white horses conjured out of the normally calm Irish Sea by a biting westerly wind. For a while we walked in the lee of the buckthorn stands that separate the shore from the railway line and the wetlands behind, but once that protection was gone, the wind blew hard and cold. Still, it was good to be out clearing the cobwebs away and checking what the waves had carried onto the shore. Marvellous too to see the bird life on the wetlands, though without the telescopes and other aids that the keener birdwatchers carried with them, arriving as we left. In the distance the Sugar Loaf and the Wicklow mountains had a dusting of snow. Here on the east coast, we've had nothing like the snow in some other parts of the country, and we've certainly had nothing like they've had on our neighbouring island, where the cold front from Europe met no resistance; in Ireland there's always a bit of a push-back from the Atlantic weather fronts.

White horses and mini-schnauzer on the shore of the Irish Sea 

The stormy seas leave some castaways on the beach -
this crab is larger than the ones we normally see
(I've thrown a glove in for scale)
Buckthorn (and an unidentified umbellifer) separates the shore from the wetlands behind
Winter comes to the hills and the wetlands
Some of the snow earlier in the week iced the yellows of the witch hazel and primulas in the gardens, but in spite of the weather, a bee was out and about, finding very welcome sustenance in the Mahonia blossoms.

Snow comes to the garden: Witch hazel, Hamamelis pallida

Wintry Primula
One of the best reasons to have some Mahonia in your garden
Yellow was a bit of a theme this week and the primula found respite from the weather indoors as I grappled with drawing (and painting, sigh) it for our class on Saturday.
Primula sketch

More Primula - those damn leaves are tricky
To understate it wildly, there's a bit of work to do on the whole drawing and painting thing, but it's very engaging and brings a whole new way of looking at plants I already love. It's a bit like when I first started to edit texts: I'd find myself looking for typos in Everything I read. Now I find myself thinking about Cadmium Yellow Light and Aureoline, about Sap Green with a hint of Lemon Yellow, about Light Red and Ultramarine. The world may not be the same again. Lovely.

Have a good week all.

20 January 2013

The Kindness of Gardeners

It's a constant source of delight, the kindness of gardeners. I came across it (again) at an Alpine Garden Society meeting this week. I'm fascinated by some alpines--the impossibly tiny perfections of the cushion varieties in particular--but am not at all sure that I have the patience to grow them well. But last Spring at an AGS lecture, someone mentioned that there were a few plants available (for free!) to someone who hadn't grown them before and they came with the promise of advice from more experienced members in the group. Well, I volunteered and went home with a few plants: 

Draba longisiliqua  (with the yellow flowers) and others, surrendered into my care last Spring
I found the courage to re-pot some of them and all seemed okay; though it's kind of hard to tell with alpines.  A summer visit to an expert's garden made me realise I was never going to reach the heady heights of perfection that he has, but I could at least provide the few specimens I had with a good home. I decided to improvise and got a wine box from our local offie, filled it with sand, and nestled the pots in it. This insulates their roots against too much heat (*not* a problem last summer as it turned out) or cold. So, in they went and all seemed well:

Draba longisiliqua (back left) repotted and sharing its quarters
We were away a bit in the late Autumn and when I came back I was horrified to see most of the alpines were looking dreadful! They had dried out I think. I thought all was lost, and a while later I got worried too about slightly murky areas of foliage on one or two of the plants. Looked like I was going to fall at first hurdle (I had to work a topical horse reference in here this week). 

A couple of weeks ago I noticed that the Draba at least had some healthy looking leaves on it still. And then last week I noticed some tiny flower buds starting to emerge! Still, I thought the plant wasn't really going to recover.

The same D. longisiliqua last week.
The tiny flower bud in the middle gave me hope, but the rest  was looking scary
Anyway... I brought it along to the AGS meeting last week: I thought I'd better 'fess up to my mentors. Both agreed that it was probably going to be okay. "Oh don't worry, that's what they look like in winter" remarked one of them, although she did mention that the greyish foliage had probably succumbed to a fungal infection. Some kind advice was offered, some other gardeners stopped by to have a look ("wish mine were looking as well" said another, see what I mean by kind?), and all wished me well. 

Gardeners are generally a lovely bunch and most often are more than willing to share expertise and plants. In fact, in thinking about this today, I realised that quite a few of the plants in my garden come from other gardeners. Some of the plants came with health warnings as they're serious self-seeders, but I got them when I was not long in this garden, had no money for plants, had little time for gardening (my sons were very young at the time), and had two labradors lumbering and leaping around the place. Self-seeders were a Good Thing in those circumstances. And I still love them; I think it's the serendipity  -- who'll start squatting next to whom, who'll elbow someone else out, who'll form a close and harmonious relationship. And the bonus of course is that the plants always remind me of the gardener who gave them to me. 

Here's a list, off the top of my head, of the plants in my garden that were gifts from others:

Loganberries, raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries, Alchemilla mollis, Welsh poppy, Feverfew, Rosa glauca, Japanese quince, apple, crab apple and cherry trees, Japanese maple trees, hellebores, hostas, grasses and--last year--some lovely varieties of tomato for the greenhouse. And so, because of such kindnesses, I have a garden full of scent, colour, delicious tastes and wonderful memories. Lucky me. 

Have a good week all.

13 January 2013


Sleet falls lazily outside the window, sporadic. It's 2C out there. Birds are busy feeding as quickly and effectively as they can, the bird feeder needs topping up again and I've just thrown some more halved windfalls into the garden. A thrush works it way through fallen leaves under the Eleagnus and honeysuckle, turning them over and searching for tasty and protein-rich morsels; dunnocks, finches and now a blackbird hen peck around under the birdfeeder, dwarfed by the rather self-satisfied looking wood pigeon that does the same. Coal tits flit busily from branch to feeder, blue tits too. Sparrows join in of course, when they leave off from their wasteful (surely?) chitter-chattering in the hedges.

The winter-drab garden would be a very poor and lifeless-looking place without them all.

Mind you, the garden would be a little less drab if I were a bit more organised: I found this gorgeous azure-blue iris today, pushing out from underneath a sack of horticultural sand that I'd left on top of a large pot (I'd forgotten there were treasures within). I comfort myself with the notion that a lack of organisation can mean that even a small garden holds surprises.

Iris reticulata finds a way
I'm feeling a bit winter-drab myself today so this is a short one. Forays into the woods have provided some respite so I'll leave the pictures speak for themselves.

Elf Caps bring tiny spots of colour to the winter woods

Wild garlic coming through the forest floor already
(and spot the Elf Cap in this photo to see how small they are)
Sessile oak (Quercus petraea) in a wood in the Dublin foothills
(and spot the schnauzer to get an idea of how large the tree is)
Monterey Pine (Pinus radiata) in the same wood
Have a good week all.

05 January 2013

A winter-dark sea

Oh but it was winter in Donegal: hard rain and hail whirling and driving in from the Atlantic in clouds of darkest blue-grey.

Winter beach
On my first morning walk, a rain shower raced in before I got to the top of the hill behind the house and I went scurrying for safety in a stand of birch trees. Fortuitous since I was able to spot a tiny wren's nest, secure in its netting of birch limbs and honeysuckle tangles. The rain wasn't all bad then, as it gave me a chance to see such a tiny perfect thing and to wonder at the gorgeous caramel colour of the birch bark on the surrounding trees. The following morning was clear and a late waning moon lingered in the sky over the same grove of trees.

Wren's nest in birch and honeysuckle 

Birch bark
Look closely and you'll see a wintry moon
Dooey had been scoured by the wind and waves with the tideline higher than we've ever seen it. A tree trunk, complete with entwining ivy, lay incongruous on the beach at right angles to the tide. At Narin, the tide was out and the sand saturated so the whole beach was a mirror reflecting the winter sky, some intrepid New Year's Eve walkers and the occasional small dog. No excuses were needed to head back indoors, hunker down, light the stove and enjoy good food, wine and company. Thanks again, hosts!
Washed up tree trunk and embracing ivy.
Human foot for scale!

Mirror beach
Back home this weekend, I got out in the garden on a still bright morning and cut back the Molinia (beaten down finally by wind and rain and turning into a flattened soggy mess), the asters, the verbena (V. bonariensis) and various other messy remnants. The witch hazel in the back garden now gleams free of too much distraction, and in the front, as I'd hoped, Jelena has come into her own: deep red and peach gleaming at the base of the unfurling tendrils.

This morning was grey and dull and we went to dispose of our Christmas tree - a market in the same park found me buying some bright primulas which are now in a pot on one of the steps in the back garden. They catch the eye when there's so little else to see, apart from the birds that it is! Not only are wrens' nests visible on Donegal hillsides, but the wrens themselves are flitting from hedge to pot in the back garden, and the bird feeder is busy with finches, dunnocks, sparrows and coal-, great- and blue tits. By the stream and in the park every morning this week (at temperatures of 10 or 12C) thrushes and robins have been singing their hearts out. There's plenty more winter to come, for sure, but the birds know better than I do that the year has most certainly turned.

Hamamelis 'Jelena'

A pot of Primula brightens the back garden steps
I'll finish this week by noting with sadness the death of one of our gentlest poets, Dennis O'Driscoll. I once summoned up the courage to tell him in person how much I enjoyed his poetry, and one of his poems (Missing God) in particular; I'm glad now I took the opportunity. He's remembered here by his friend Seamus Heaney. RIP.

Have a good week all.