Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Glad tidings .... a bit late

What a difference a week makes. A week ago we were in the grips of our longest and most severe cold spell for a generation. We had no water which meant we had no heating - water pressure is needed to run the boiler - we had frequent long breaks in our internet connection, and our roads were so badly iced we weren't able to get out for a fortnight.

And just look at it today ....

This was the view across or local lake, Lough Graney. Not a sign of snow, beautiful clear sky and warm sunshine ... and the lake so still it was like a mirror. The unwary might have been fooled into thinking spring was just around the corner, but it's still only January and I'm sure this winter has got a few more surprises in store for us before it's spent.

But the return to good weather did allow me to do some of the early winter jobs that just weren't possible at the end of last year - either because of the incessant rain, or the freezing conditions.

One of those jobs was lifting the gladiolus corms. It's one of those tasks that reminds me so much of growing up and learning some of the rudiments of gardening from my father. He was a great gladiolus grower and used to exhibit them at local shows.

I always thought lifting the corms was a magical time - there was the excitement of seeing how big the corms were, but also collecting up all the cormlets that grow round the base of the new corm. Some varieties seem to produce lots of them and many fall off when the corms are being lifted. My job was to sift through the soil and pick out as many of the cormlets as I could spot. Dad used to grow them on like seeds and in a couple of years they would produce flowering size corms.

So, I was able to re-live that pleasure yesterday when I lifted the corms I grew last year for cut flowers. They're now being dried out a bit so they can be cleaned and the old corm removed, but they're mostly a good size so we should get some good long spikes this year.

And look at all those cormlets. I'll be planting them out just as Dad did - and congratulating myself in a couple of year's time for all the money I've saved by raising my own corms. We gardeners get pleasure from the simplest of things!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Daddy of Leyland Cypress

The snow's come and gone again over the last few days. Referring back to my last blog entry, it made our oldest living willow fence look particularly attractive.

Mature living willow fence in the snow

You can get a good idea from this just how much growth a mature fence can produce each year. Some of these shoots are 10 feet long or more. They all have to be pruned off before the spring. It's a big job.

This view towards our cottage shows how two conifers dominate the treescape. Most of the deciduous trees you can see are ash and sycamore which are the most common trees of the hedgerows in this part of Ireland along with hawthorn, blackthorn and holly. So it's something of a surprise to find two fine conifers specimens planted around the yard of what was a traditional Irish farmhouse. And they're an unusual conifer for this area too - Nootka cypress, also known as Yellow Cypress and Alaska Cypress.

Two conifers dominate the trees around our cottage

The one on the right is a massive multi-stemmed tree about 60feet high and the one on the left a single stemmed tree probably 10 feet shorter. I haven't got much information on growth rates of Nootka Cypress in Ireland, but it's not a particularly fast growing tree anywhere so I reckon these specimens must be 80 to 100 years old - if not older.

Quite how an ordinary farming family came to be planting trees which at that time would have been quite exotic is hard to imagine. The first specimens of this North American native tree only reached Britain in the 1850s and I suspect it would have been a little time after when they reached Ireland. The answer may be found at Caher House about a mile away down the lake. The landscaped gardens of this fine house contain some rather special specimen trees including the largest Sitka spruce in Ireland. Could it be that the family did some work for the owners of Caher House and were given the young Nootka cypress trees to plant by their farmhouse.

Whatever the reason, they've left a legacy of two fine trees that are firm favourites with us. They have a beautiful pendulous habit which means the foliage reaches down to the ground and there's little bare trunk to be seen.

The larger specimen is multi-stemmed and around 60 ft high

The pendulous branches sweep down to the ground

The name derives from its discovery on the lands of a First Nation of Canada, the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, who were formerly referred to as the Nootka. The tree is native to the west coast of North America from Alaska down to the northen part of California and favours wet sites with cool summers - ideal for Ireland then!

Its other claim to fame is that it is one of the parents of the hybrid tree, the Leyland Cypress. In fact, it was the planting the Nootka cypress alongside a botanically close relative the Monterey Cypress in a garden in Wales that gave the trees, that in nature never grew closer than 400 miles to each other, the chance to cross pollinate.

The result was actually a fine tree when planted in the right place, but as a hedging tree for suburban gardens it was a disaster. In 2005 in the United Kingdom, an estimated 17,000 people were at loggerheads over Leylandii hedges, which lead to violence and in at least one case murder, when in 2001, retired Environment Agency officer Llandis Burdon, 57, was shot dead after an alleged dispute over a leylandii hedge in Talybont-on-Usk, Powys - ironically just a few miles from Leighton Hall where the first Leyland Cypress had been discovered back in 1888.

So the claim to fame of Nootka Cypress as the daddy of the Leyland Cypress is perhaps a mixed one, but it certainly makes a fine tree in its own right and the treescape of our little cottage would be much the poorer if it were not there.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Don't take a fence

I've realised reading other people's blogs that I've really no right to complain about the cold spell we're having at the moment. There are lots of people around the world gardening in much more challenging conditions and getting on with it.

I suppose, in my defence, we are in the middle of the longest cold spell here since the 1960s and if the forecast is to be believed - another two weeks of it at least - it's going to be the worst for a hundred years or more. Our local lake, Lough Graney, which is a pretty large lake - about 100 acres in area - is now almost completely frozen over which no-one can remember happening before.

Lough Graney almost completely frozen over

So, we're just not used to it, but day by day we're settling into a different routine. Normally at this time of year we'd be out pruning and doing other winter jobs and this time last year I was weaving my first willow wattle fence to protect my veg plot from the dog and the occasional deer and stray cattle that find their way onto our land.

It's great to see that a year on it's still looking just as good and has encouraged me to do some more adventurous things with the large amount of willow we have growing around our land.

The fence is a simple structure of uprights of trimmed three year old willow stakes driven into the ground with willow withies - one year old shoots - woven between them. It took quite a pile of withies to make this fence, but it's sturdy and animal-proof and should last a few years. The great thing is it didn't cost a penny and it gave me a great deal of satisfaction making it.

Most of the withies used were the common osier or basket willow, but we also have stands of a number of different coloured stemmed willows which I must make an effort to identify this year. One of them has beautiful orange- yellow stems which turn almost red on the side facing the sun.

I used these to make my first living willow fence. It produces lovely straight shoots six feet and more long which are ideal for the kind of lattice-work fence I wanted to create. This is the fence I 'planted' in March last year.

I say planted because holes a little wider than the withies are made at an angle in the soil with a thin metal pole and the withies pushed in to a depth of about six inches. Alternate withies are pushed in at opposing angles and they are woven into each other to create the lattice of sticks. The tops are tied to a horizontal withy to give some stability to the top and that's about it.

The withies root readily as the soil warms up and they come into leaf. I didn't lose a single one in this fence. During the summer any side-shoots are rubbed off to keep the lattice work of the fence clear of growth, but the top three or four buds are allowed to grow out. These shoots are trimmed back to the top of the fence in the winter - that's the next job I have to do on this fence as well as tie in some shoots along the top to provide a more stable fence.

After three or four years, the fence will look like this:

And after 10 or more years a well-established fence will look like this:

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Siberian dogwood for a Siberian winter

The challenge I set myself this year was each day to find a new plant flowering in our garden or in the surrounding countryside of East Clare and talk about it. And here I am on day 3 and I've already run out of plants in flower.

We get used to blaming the weather for lots of things in Ireland - usually because it's raining. But with the warm (ha ha) waters of the Atlantic bathing our coasts we aren't usually troubled by extreme cold. But here we are three weeks into a spell where temperatures have rarely risen above freezing point.

Just a month ago we were stunned to see a narcissus in flower (it was actually December 10). We should have realised it meant that this was going to be no ordinary winter. And so it's proving to be. Who says climate change is a myth.

Dwarf narcissus in flower on December 10 2009

The upshot for this blog is that I come to a grinding halt .... or I change the rules a bit.

So today's plant, the appropriately named Siberian dogwood, is offered for the beauty, not of its flowers, but its stems. And what a stunning display it's making this year. The one we have is a selection with particularly vivid red stems - Cornus alba 'Sibirica'.

Siberian dogwood on January 3

This cultivar also has strong green foliage that turns a deep red in the autumn so you get the benefit of autumn as well as winter colour. It loves wet ground - so it loves Ireland - and it propagates itself by layers. In the photograph above, the main plant is to the left and the collection of shoots in the middle is a new plant produced from a shoot laying on the ground and rooting. We've already moved a number of clumps to other parts of land where we want to introduce some winter colour.

You can just as easily stick some of the prunings in the ground or in pots in the early spring and they're pretty well guaranteed to root. Mind you, the way this year's going I should be very wary about saying that anything's a certainty.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Heathers in a foggy bottom

We got off lightly last night. The temperature only went down to -8C. Enough, though, to freeze the water in the pump in our barn - we draw water from our own well here. No mod cons like piped mains water. Fortunately it thawed out pretty quickly with the help of a fan heater so we were only without water for a couple of hours - better than the three days we were without over Christmas.

So, with the arctic weather continuing there's not much change on the flora front. But today's blog is saved by yet another reliable winter flowerer - the winter flowering heather. It's in winters like this that its toughness and tolerance of cold is really appreciated.

We've got a couple of plants in a border to the front of the cottage. I have to admit that we inherited them with the cottage and we've not lavished them with much love and care. We've kept the weeds down a bit - that's about it. But that's the other beauty of these heathers, they're robust enough to stand up to some rough treatment and still put on a good show. And, unlike most heaths and heathers, they're not even too worried about having acid soil round their roots


Winter flowering heather on January 2

I'm not sure what varieties we've got, but I'd take a stab at Erica carnea 'Springwood White' and 'Springwood Pink'. Erica carnea is found in the wild in mountainous areas in central and southern Europe in the Alps - hence its tolerance to cold. A white form was discovered growing on Monte Corragio in Italy by Mrs Ralph Walker of Springwood, Stirling, Scotland in the 1920s. Originally just called ‘Springwood’ but changed when ‘Springwood Pink’ appeared as an offspring.

The Springwoods have remained the stalwarts of the winter heather world ever since although there are now many more cultivars available.

I can't see heathers without thinking of the wonderful Blooms Nurseries at Bressingham in Norfolk, England which were part of my education into horticulture in the 1960s. The nurseries were founded by one of the great characters in the world of gardening, Alan Bloom shortly after the end of WW2.

Heathers and conifers in Foggy Bottom at Bressingham

The nursery was perhaps most well known for popularising the use of herbaceous perennials by growing them in containers and so making them more widely available to gardeners through garden centres. But in the 1960s the nursery was at the forefront of promoting the use of heathers combined with dwarf conifers to create low maintenance beds with all-year-round colour interest. And they showed just how good these beds could look in the area of the gardens at Bressingham known as Foggy Bottom. A name that must have come from the imagination of Alan Bloom.

Nurseryman Alan Bloom at the controls of one of his locomotives

His other passion was steam locomotives and he set about building a collection of the locomotives then being discarded by British Rail and built a track round the nursery to show some of them off. His great joy was to take visitors round the nursery and few of them realised that the eccentric chap with the long flowing white hair and greasy overalls shovelling the coal and taking the controls was actually the founder, owner and boss of the whole establishment.

Alan Bloom died just a year short of reaching the age of 100 in 2005.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Arctic start to the New Year

It's some time since I posted on this blog. I'd love to be able to offer a convincing excuse, but it's perhaps better to look on the positive side and say that it's a New Year - and a new decade - and that's as good a time as any to get back to noting some of the plants I come across on our five acres of rural Ireland - and in the surrounding countryside - and a few other thoughts that link in with them that interest or intrigue me.

My thought was to feature every day, as far as I could, a plant that I had photographed that day in flower. In this part of Ireland where snow is rare and winters are usually relatively mild that seemed a feasible idea. But I didn't count on this winter being such an exception. We are now three weeks into what will almost certainly prove to be the coldest spell in living memory. We've had frost every night over that period and it's getting worse - the temperature is expected to drop to -10C tonight which is pretty well unheard of around here.

Needless to say, the flora is seriously non-floral at the moment and I suspect it's going to stay that way for a while, but I shouldn't have been surprised to find one old favourite still bravely putting on a show - gorse (Ulex europaeus). There's an old country saying that "When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of fashion", meaning that lovers never need worry because gorse is to be found flowering throughout the year.

And here's the proof - gorse flowering on January 1 in the depths of a severe cold spell. OK, it's not exactly at its best, but it's a splash of yellow in an otherwise green, brown and white landscape.

Gorse flowering on January 1

Gorse, also known as furze and whin, grows commonly in this area and was probably planted into hedgerows to contain livestock and provide a good windbreak. It's said it was also planted around dwellings so that washing could be laid out to dry without fear of it being blown away.

The few flowers today weren't offering much scent, but when gorse is in full bloom it produces a strong sweet coconut scent which some people like myself find very noticeable. Others apparently are hardly able to smell it. Presumably bees and the other insects that it relies on for pollination aren't quite so fickle.