24 February 2013

A fresh-peeled voice

Oh the mornings are easier now, the fresh-peeled voice of a thrush insistent outside the window, the light seeping into dark bedrooms earlier and earlier. Even the return of winter this weekend (with snow!) hasn't slowed down the march of Spring. The tiny first daffodils in the garden have borne it all with their usual insouciance; the hellebores have carried their icy burdens with their usual grace: heads bowed anyway and subtle colours undimmed.

Daffodils and Dublin snow

Icy hellebore (and a spot-the-schnauzer)

The same icy hellebore, undimmed by the cold

A new hellebore in my garden this year (got it from Mount Venus last year)
This one has a hint of lemon yellow in the real world, but my camera doesn't like yellows

And since the same snow was gone within a day, it was nothing more than a whispered reminder of what those living without the embrace of the Gulf Stream (Montréal, Hamden) have to endure day after day at the moment.

Cold or not, the Spring imperative has hit and today I was in the greenhouse sowing some seeds of Androsace vandellii; I'm a glutton for punishment as they're notoriously tricky, but I'd saved the seeds a while ago so I reckoned I might as well put them in a pot as leave them in the door of the fridge.

But the week gone by has featured more inside than outside plant and garden activity.

Thursday morning in the Bots was the first meeting of the nascent Irish Society of Botanical Artists and some of the class I'm in (and our teacher) went along. Well ... such beautiful work! There were formal illustrations and non-formal paintings, there were tiny images and large canvases; delicate, translucent sweet peas and robust fence posts twined with ivy. There were framed paintings and portfolios and an astonishing artist's notebook, from someone who just today heard that she has been accepted as an Associate Member of the SBA (well done SD)! And above all there were artists (and would-be artists) coming together to share enthusiasm and ideas. There'll be a website soon and I'll be linking to it from here somewhere. Thanks to all for the lovely welcome.

Thursday night I was transported to the cold Kamchatka sea, when the AGS hosted the Czech plant-hunter extraordinaire, Vojtech Holubec, who spoke on ‘Plants and Nature of the Far East – Kamchatka, Sakhalin and Kuriles'. From the woodlands of Sakhalin to the scree slopes and sulphurous craters of the Kamchatka volcanoes, Vojtech brought us on an amazing journey, combining his encyclopaedic knowledge of plants with beautiful photography and a lecture delivered flawlessly in what's probably his fourth language.

Much closer to home I was so pleased and relieved to see that Scilla verna is blooming again in our local park (I use the Latin name as the English name, Squill, sounds like some sort of ghastly sea cucumber doesn't it?). Like the daffs and hellebores it's unfazed by the snow and glows quietly blue, one of the early reminders that Spring is indeed on the way.

And that's where we came in this week, so I'll leave it at that.

Scilla verna

Scilla verna
Have a good week all.

17 February 2013

Peace comes dropping slow

BVG took this exquisite photograph of snowdrops in Altamont Gardens

Snowdrops. Spring. Sunlight. 
Realising that yes, sometimes peace comes dropping slow
It would be hard to ask for anything more. 

A visit to Altamont Gardens on Friday for their snowdrop walk gave us a hint of the enthusiasm that lies behind galanthophiles' obsessions ... But really, in spite of the marvellous talk by the OPW's gardener there (and I apologise to him for missing his name) about G. elwesii varieties and G. woronowii and G. nivalis S. Arnott and the joy or otherwise of the double varieties or those with yellow ovaries (the ovary in the snowdrop is the bead-like part of the flower from which the petals appear to hang), we simply enjoyed the drifts of snowdrops under the beech trees in the Nuns' Walk, their whiteness a foil for the burgundy Hellebores. And the tapestry they made throughout the well-pruned rose beds, venturing out onto the turf. And their braving it, in the company of Cyclamen coum, under a beautiful and very old cedar. And their sharing the subtle limelight with an early rhododendron in the woodland. B has caught the beauty of snowdrops so well in that photo above. You can see it, some snowflakes and other lovely images here.

Snowdrops and hellebores in Altamont Gardens

Snowdrops and Rhododendron in Altamont Gardens
I couldn't leave Altamont without one or two mementoes from the plant sales area; they included the delicate and small Tulipa humilis (only a few cm high) which I think may end up in a small wooden planter that just has one or two other alpinish plants in there. While I enjoy their blowsy, brash Dutch relatives, I find that I really prefer these smaller tulips, closer in their habit to their original cousins in Turkey or the Hindu Kush.

Tulipa humilis, welcoming the Spring sunshine
We returned to the midlands on Saturday to visit friends. Honeyed sunlight poured into the house early this morning, tempting me out for an pre-breakfast walk with one restive mini-schnauzer and her country cousin who showed her townie visitor some of the sights and smells in the surrounding fields and woods and bogs. On a later walk, we heard and saw three buzzards wheeling and floating through the fresh spring sky, wing-tips splayed and curved, sifting the wind and currents of air with ease and grace. I'd never seen or heard a buzzard before and was delighted! (D and B, thanks for a lovely weekend).

This week Spring truly has arrived - and everywhere there's someone revelling in it: dog walkers in my local park; friends who've had a tough, dreary January; a son who headed up Ticknock today to blow some cobwebs away; busy frogs in my tiny pond ... We've some way to go still, and in the hedgerows the trees' bare branches that stretch through enveloping mittens of ivy to the welcome sunlight will be bare for some time to come. But let the growing begin!

Frogspawn in the tiny pond
A buzzard claims its part of the sky
Have a good week all.

Oh, a postscript: not all of this weekend was spent outdoors, inside the work continues on trying to catch the line and colour of growing things. Only about 60 hours practice down so only--what--9940 hours to go before I might start to master some of the art. This week it was Japanese quince:

Fruit of the Japanese Quince, Chaenomeles sp. (0.35 Pencil)

Fruit of the Japanese Quince, Chaenomeles sp. (Watercolour and pencil)

10 February 2013

Dreeping hedges

Unrelenting rain all day today, the roads lined with dreeping hedges, raindrops beating a gentle tattoo on my hood as we walked in the hills, taking a route through woods to get at least a little shelter. I thought of Ciaran Carson:
 "After a downpour, the scarps and inclines of the Silent Valley scintillate with water. Waterfalling veins pulse down the mountainsides, with cloudy wisps blown off them"
(from Fishing for Amber). 
That's the sort of day we had today.

one wet schnauzer
In spite of Carson's lovely words in my head I was feeling less than poetic about the dreary day and so this week, rather than reflect on what's happening now, I'm reflecting on what I want my garden to be, and really using that as an excuse to include some pics from the garden at other seasons, because it is looking anything but scintillating today...

So-o-o, what should a garden be?

For some gardeners, it's ALL about the plants: they want the best collection, the rarest plant ('my snowdrop is rarer than yours...'), the newest cultivar. For others, it's all about the design - every plant, every hard structure must have its place and all are informed by the grand vision for the space, with little tolerance for serendipity. There's the 'outside room' idea, but really why have a garden if you're going to think of it as a room? And of course some people don't give their gardens much thought at all, they're somewhere to park the car or the bicycles, hang out the laundry, store the bins, put the dog kennel. That last wouldn't be me,although my garden has to also cater for all of those things.  Also, I don't have the time (or the inclination, to be honest) to have a 'perfect' design; and while I love so many plants, I'm not a collector and I'm careless about remembering which varieties I have, even when they're gorgeous things I've found in Mount Venus or the Camolin Potting Shed.

So I've been trying to figure out of late what sort of gardener I am. And the nearest I can come to it is this: for me it's about the whole, it's about the sense of place. I want the garden to be pleasing to the eye, yes, but not necessarily filled with flowers; I want it to have a sense of design, yes, but I don't want that to be the end in itself. I want the garden to be somewhere I want to be. I want it to have a sense of place most of all. I want my family and my friends to enjoy being in it, and to have a picture of it, a sense of it, when they're not in it... Oh and with all of that, I'd like it to be somewhere that other beasties enjoy being too. Do I succeed with all of this with my tiny north-facing patch? I doubt it, but it's a nice goal to work towards. Here are some of the current attempts to create that sense of place in a small space.

I'll start with water since it has been such a wet day. Might as well!

The pool has made a big difference to the sense of place in the garden. Whether it's a still, meditative slice of reflected sky in April, part of the lush growth of a wet summer, or looking slightly mysterious at night, it provides all sorts of pleasure to all of us who spend time in the garden (or just looking out at it from inside). The tiny pond farther up the garden provides home for other residents, all of whom are very welcome and some of whom have already laid the first of this year's frog spawn (I spotted the first clumps this week).

Reflective in April

Part of the bigger picture in August
The pure white of water lily is welcome any time
The pool at night
One of the many other residents in the garden
You can't get a proper sense of place if you can't comfortably spend time somewhere, and so the garden has different spaces to just be, to sit and enjoy the honeysuckle or the evening sun, or maybe the sound of rain on the greenhouse roof.

The morning bench
For evenings...
For the weary gardener, or to shelter from the rain,
or just to sit in the lovely growey smell in the greenhouse
And I'd be lying if I said that the plants didn't play a role, errr, it *is* a garden after all. So, the starry flowers of the Irish Moss light up the ground in front of the morning bench. Ripening fruit brings all sorts of delight, some immediate, some deferred when the fruit gets turned to jam and reminds us in winter what summer tastes like. Pots of lilies blow their own trumpets by the pool in mid-summer. The hart's tongue ferns delight with their changes of texture, covered with fine silvery hairs as they unfurl but hard and satiny later in the year, before becoming ridged with sporangia in the last summer and finally curling down only to re-emerge the following spring. And the Miscanthus is a subtle treasure for much of the year, in the photo below gathering dew jewels on an early April morning.

Starry-eyed: Irish Moss

Loganberries, no comment needed!

Lilies blow summer's trumpet

Phyllitis, Hart's Tongue, unfurls raspily in the Spring

Miscanthus and jewels of dew in April
Finally, for this week, since my garden is such a small space, it's somewhere I can take time to enjoy the small details: red siltstone, sandstone and jasper pebbles complementing Erigeron (or is it the other way 'round?); a well-rounded cobble echoing the shape of a nearby pot.
Erigeron, cobbles and Valentia pebbles

More on this anon, but meanwhile have a good week all.

03 February 2013

Good fences...

St Brigid's Day (1 February) marks the first day of Spring. At Last! I don't think I remember a longer, darker or drearier January than we had this year. It's so great to feel that Spring really is on the way. The garden still looks an awful mess, but there are irises and crocuses getting ready to come through, an early daffodil will surely open this week and some of the hellebores are blooming.

Hellebore and Hamamelis 'Jelena'
Never boring
And yesterday, bizarrely, I found one loganberry blossom open for business, its white petals surrounding a host of stamens - ready for any bee that might be out and about (like the one on the Mahonia last week; and I notice that Michael Viney was discussing the same thing in his column on Saturday this week).

A lone loganberry blossom opens in the earliest Spring sunshine
One of those irritating winter colds has kept me indoors for much of the weekend, but I had to get out to the greenhouse in the rare sunshine yesterday. I checked the fruit garden on the way (with a little help) and muttered darkly to myself about having to tidy up a bit.

Checking the fruit garden
The strawberries are looking okay and I'm looking forward to their fruits in July. I have been very remiss about looking after the raspberries (and rhubarb) this year - all it takes is dumping some well-rotted FYM on them in November, but even that I haven't done. Not sure why... there have been many autumn/winter tasks that got neglected this year, but it was a tough enough year. Maybe next year will be better. Already I've had kind offers of help with work on the allotment for the coming year (you'll notice the allotment hasn't had any mention here for ages...) so perhaps things will get going again soon. In better news, the alpines *do* seem to be in recovery mode, so perhaps I haven't ruined them after all!

I've been doing a bit of that 'well since it's winter you should look at your garden to see what changes need to be made' thing. And I think a small stand of tiny apple trees (the Coronet ones) might well go in, in place of a collection of Miscanthus zebrinus and Inula hookeri, plus some ivies growing over old tree stumps, all of which have been there for a long time (I always like to have some rotting wood in the garden, beetles and other beasties love it, and the frogs hibernate in and around it too). There's also a forlorn trellis on the wall nearby that's hiding behind some quince and an unruly mildewy honeysuckle that never blooms much, so there'll need to be work done there too. The quince has to stay, but the rest can go. Somewhere in there, there's a Blue Moon rose, a Zepherine Drouhin, and there used to be a Passion Flower until the winter of 2010.

Walls and fences are often the make or break of small suburban gardens; quite apart from the fact that good fences make good neighbours, they're the ever-noticeable boundaries to a small space. And when they're made of dull breeze blocks as they are in my garden it becomes ever more important to get them right. And I so-o-o-o haven't. One I covered in ivy for years (H. helix Buttercup) and the sparrows, blackbirds, wrens and robins loved it. But my neighbour on that side really didn't and when he 'cut' it a couple of years ago while pulling out hedging on his own side, he essentially damaged it enough that it had to go. I haven't solved that side since. The other side, with the quince, roses etc. sounds better here than it looks in real life so it'll need a bit of attending to this year. How shall I fit in the botanical painting, the allotment, the rest of the garden, oh and the day job, with all of that? We'll see...

Have a good week all.