25 April 2015

The arty one

Some of you more dedicated readers (bless you) will know that drawing is one of my current interests - as well as gardens, plants, natural history, words. I've been spending the last few months (though only for a few hours a week) getting into some of the basics of drawing, with the help of Sam Horler at The Drawing Studio and the very classical Bargue Cours de Dessin.

I have been enjoying it enormously, which is not to say that there haven't been moments of teeth-grinding frustration... But all in all, the learning has been great and the taking time out to wield a pencil with some sort of serious intent has been very satisfying. It's a real 'in the zone' activity for me, which is wonderful in itself. The results are mixed but my hope is that it will help me draw better the things I love. Time will tell!

So, here's what I've been up to during this time of very traditional and classical training, it's a mixed bag of drawings and some of the things I see in these drawings make me wince a bit on looking at them now, but that's all part of the process. Dodgy phone pics all, but you'll get a sense of what has been going on.

The planty one

April comes and it's as though Nature has flipped a switch. Within a couple of weeks the garden and the woods have started to, well, burgeon is really the only word.

Back in February, I gathered these two photos together to remind myself that winter *would* eventually yield to spring and then to summer.

All change! Knocksink wood in winter and summer
But I don't need that reassurance now, the change is here ...

Malus ... perfect.
This year, I (and some helpers, thank you guys) did a lot of work simply splitting and moving things around in the garden. It's the sort of thing that more committed gardeners do regularly: splitting the perennials, ringing the changes in different parts of the garden, trying new things out. But it's really only over the last year or so that I feel I now have the time to do this sort of thing. And I'm loving it.

So: all the plants in and around the witch hazel and the Enkianthus in the back garden (one of my 'woodland' patches) were split and shifted around last autumn and this spring. The birches in the front garden now have an array of bleeding heart, Smilicina/Maianthemum and Pachyphragma macrophylla mixing in with all the spring bulbs that are lighting up that space too: narcissi and daffodils, anemones, scillas, that sort of thing... I love the space now and am hoping that the interest will continue with alliums, lilies and campion throughout the summer.

Spring under the birches in the front garden
Earlier in the spring I went to the annual GLDA seminar (thanks B!), and had a most enjoyable day listening to such erudite speakers as Thomas Rainer and Verney Naylor. I was a bit disappointed with the level of debate on the day, but the talks themselves were thoughtful and inspiring, even if the scale of the some of the work (e.g. Keith Wiley's Wildside Garden and Le Jardin Plume) was so daunting. My own patch looked very, very tiny on my return home. (Have a look at Le Jardin Plume: *one* of their squares is the same size as half of my back garden). Interesting thing too: since I've used Valentia pebbles and flags in my garden I asked B to paint the wooden fence--that he put up a couple of summers ago--what I thought would be a low-key purplish-slate colour. Here it is, in March, behind the rather bare and recently re-organised bed.

Hmm, not sure about the colour of that fence...
I came home that day, fresh from seeing recommendations from Verney that the perfect background for plants, to contrast well with their green, is a sort of red ochre. She showed many lovely images that proved her point. But the paint we had chosen looked a much more bluey purple than I imagined and I was more than a bit taken aback. I went through the 'oh for godsake how on earth can I imagine I should be let loose in a garden at all, I can't even get a background colour right' thing. But all was not lost... a fellow gardener (and architect) suggested that at these latitudes the cooler colours are a better backdrop and as spring has worked its magic and the plants have grown at the foot of and in front of the fence I've come to like it better. We'll see how it works as time goes on. Better than bare breeze blocks anyway. Here it is today:

Fence settling in 1...

Fence settling in 2...
Apologies for the pics, btw, they're just phone ones since my camera is being mended at the moment.

In other plant news, the Dublin and Ulster Shows of the Alpine Garden Society have been and gone. Some of my plants even did well at both shows (in the Novices section, natch): I got some firsts at both shows as well as a couple of thirds at the Dublin one.

Here's a beautiful tulip that won me a First at the Ulster Group AGS show:

My Tulipa clusiana var. chrysantha (photo by catchlight.ie)
I also put a picture in the Artistic Section in both shows this year and it came first in both!

There are always lots of amazing plants at these shows: the results of painstaking effort on the part of their growers and nurterers. Here's one that won the much-coveted Farrer medal (well done Val!). It's Draba longisilqua, and is probably the parent of the Draba I was kindly given by another AGS expert a couple of years ago. Mine is still alive, but there hasn't been a single flower on it yet this year. Go figure!

Draba longisiliqua, grown by Val Keegan, winner of the AGS Farrer Medal in Dublin, April 2015
Spring weather has been a mixed bag here and this weekend was typical - sunny and showery; sunny and cold. A wet Saturday morning in Mount Usher gardens meant a quiet walk with few people around; not the best weather for visiting a garden, but even with the rain, there were moments of beauty:

Intricacies of a beech hedge in Mount Usher gardens

Fallen blossom in a rill in Mount Usher gardens
Go well all.

25 January 2015

The eyes have it

The light lingers longer in the evenings. We've passed the eight hours between sunrise and sunset. The snowdrops are blooming now under the trees.

But still, January sometimes feels like the longest month.

In the gardening groups on facebook, gardeners at these latitudes have started posting photos from last summer, desperate reminders that colour will return, that there'll be a feeling of abundance in our gardens again. May and June will come around!

Meanwhile, to keep some of us occupied, there are seeds to be sown. For me, it's the first year that I've ordered from the AGS and my seeds arrived this week to much excitement (and much trepidation!) A gardener in the AGS gave me some small pots for the sowing (I keep repeating it here, but gardeners really are a generous bunch), so I just have to get a bit more organised next weekend: make sure I have the right mix of compost and grit, find a place to put the pots once they're sown, sow the seeds, and then hope...

Seeds in from the AGS: an Easy Pack and some selected from the main Seed List
Away from a dreary garden, the woods have held onto some charm, in spite of the time of year. Mosses and ferns in Massey wood are a beautiful foil to the grey light, and the odd hollowed-out tree provides some adventure for a small grey dog.

Mossy Massey
Ferns and mosses provide green in the winter woodland

The schnauzer investigates...

I learnt recently that hollowed out trees can provide great homes for small beasties and are very valuable for that reason. It was a tree surgeon who told me, very early one morning here in our own small bit of the Dublin suburban sprawl. Around eight in the morning I heard a chain saw on the go: not that usual for mid-December in a quiet suburb. I assumed that a neighbour was getting some shrubs cut down but discovered, to my horror, that the one large and lovely tree that's on our local little green space was being cut down.

The lime tree in our local tiny green on a December morning - about to be cut down and removed

I wasn't the only one who was standing there aghast. Other neighbours had arrived too, to stare in disbelief.

Apparently, someone had complained of the tree's interfering with their light. The tree had been 'assessed' and deemed dangerous as it is slightly hollowed out. The decision was made at some desk in the local council to cut the tree down completely.

This story has a happier ending than you might think.

The tree surgeon rang the council; talked earnestly about angry residents (which conjures up visions of all of us wielding pitchforks and flaming torches; the truth was we were standing there forlorn and shocked, though also determined); and the tree got a stay of execution. Unfortunately, the work had started, so they still had to cut the tree back by a lot, to balance out what they had already done. And so: we still have the tree, but only just. Let's hope it grows back okay and continues to delight us throughout the year. It's a lime tree, so provides all sorts of delights throughout the year: shelter for the birds and the beasts of course, and for us that wonderful delicate scent on summer mornings and evenings, and a warm glow in autumnal light as the year moves on.

The lime tree in late summer light a couple of years ago: this view from my back garden

The same tree, also from my back garden, at moonrise on a January evening, after its stay of execution
This all does beg the question about how these decisions are made. It seems to me that much of the decision-making is based on overly strict and careful notions of 'health and safety' (read, 'avoid insurance claims') and little balanced argument in terms of other benefits that come to all of us from having mature trees in our environment.

But to end on a more optimistic note. The drawing classes continue apace. Very formal as I've mentioned before. Very rigorous, really. I'm enjoying them - I think of it as fitting in well with the other 'slow' movements that have been around over the last few years (around food, living, etc.): this class is about slowing down, about taking time to set up a drawing, taking time to really look at something, taking time to place a mark on the page, taking time to assess that mark. All of this is difficult for me as I'm always wanting to get to an output or an outcome of some sort, but the discipline of the class is helping me to realise the importance of the process itself. And since some of the best photographers and artists I know work this way, well it must be worth a shot!

Practice and process and learning to slow down;
a poor photo of some of my attempts on newsprint
Have a good week all.

18 January 2015

Find that plant; spot that schnauzer

On the night that Storm Rachel was finally winding down, a bevy (though what is the best collective noun for gardeners? a clump?  a shovelful? a spade?) of gardeners assembled in the lecture theatre in the Bots to hear Martin Walsh talk about 'Himalyan and Chinese Plants for the Irish Garden'. The talk was jointly organised by the Dublin AGS and the IGPS and, in spite of the weather, lots of us went along to soak up an equal mix of erudition and enthusiasm from Martin, a designer, plant-hunter and plant-expert. What a treat. I'm always delighted to hear an expert who knows and loves their topic talk so well about it: yes, it throws up the umplumbed depths of my own ignorance (*sighs*), but isn't it great that someone not only knows so much, but is willing to share it? As an aside, this is one of the things I love about the quiet operation of so many small and not so small interest groups and societies--the willingness of people to share enthusiasm, knowledge and skills. Brilliant!

During his talk we were treated not just to Martin's experience and expertise, but also to his photos--taken in the Himalaya, Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Yunnan Province (SW China)--which were breathtaking.

The Himalaya: thanks to the Encyclopedia of Earth for the image. 
Martin has been plant-hunting in all these regions (which makes my trips up to Mount Venus nursery seem a bit, well, tame...) and enjoys putting what he learns about the plants in their native habitats into use in his own garden and those he makes for others. 

On Thursday evening Martin said that his task was to persuade us of the value of using plants from the Himalya and China in Irish gardens. This was probably an easy enough task, given his audience on the night, but I know that for me the huge value was to hear about which plants in particular do well, which are easy to grow, and which might be more difficult. That last category wouldn't be for me but there were plenty of expert growers in the Bots that night who'd relish the challenge of taking on some of the trickier plants.

And oh those plants!

I'll be writing up the talk in more detail for the Dublin AGS but I'll just mention a few plants here that particularly caught my attention. 

Martin loves woodlands and so woodland plants got a special mention; three that stood out for me were Paris polyphylla, Arisaema consanguineum and Maianthemum oleraceum var. acuminatum. (That last used to be Smilacina). 

Paris polyphylla; thanks to garden.ie for the photo

Arisaema consanguineaum; thanks to Scottish Rock for the photo
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Maianthemum oleraceum; thanks to Curtis's Botanical Magazine, via plantillustrations.org for the image
(had to get a botanical illustration in here somehow!) 
Some days I think I just want to turn my garden into a woodland. But this would be a little difficult to do with a small suburban back garden, with neighbours who seem to hold only fear and dread for trees though also, in fairness, neighbours who don't deserve to have their already north-facing back gardens further shaded by the woodlandy passion of yer woman in the house with the white trees out the front (Betula utilis var. jaquemontii, for the record). But I can dream.

One of the difficulties with woodland in our climate is that there's not a lot that goes on after the glories of spring. But Martin pointed out that there are plenty of plants that can keep the interest going for a good bit longer, for example that gorgeous P. polyphylla doesn't emerge until about June, but then continues into October. Must try to find it...

There were lots of other plants described by Martin on the night, perhaps I'll do another post about them (Anemone rupicola 'Wild Swan', Paraquilegia anemonoides, Primula sikkimensis, Primula alpicola var. alba, Corydalis 'Wildside Blue') but that's probably enough detailed plant stuff for one post. I'm sure I've lost all the botanical artists and nature lovers who occasionally drop by this blog.

I'll finish with a spot the schnauzer (especially for CH) which we haven't had for a while. This is from a recent walk in the local park, past one of my favourite Scots pines (the curved rather grand looking one on the left).

Go well all.