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
 no thumbnail available
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.

04 January 2015

Hold fast

Like tiny seed pearls scattered on moss-green velvet, sheep on the scree slope of a distant Ben Bulben grazed scant croppings harsh with salt of the sea. On a bright cold day, we were travelling home (from a wet Donegal new year) via Sligo. For a change, Ben Bulben and the other nunataks in the range were clear: more often than not each carries its own toupee of cloud and rain. Not this day though! The weather was so fine we strayed off course and walked at Streedagh Point, heads down, finding lots of coral fossils amongst the cobbles on the beach. All coming from the same series of limestones that give Ben Bulben and its neighbours such a distinctive appearance. The only others on the beach were a squawk of gulls all busy on the mounds of Laminaria holdfasts piled up by an earlier storm.

Piles of Laminaria holdfasts at Streedagh Point, Co. Sligo
I love that word 'holdfast', not only is it concise and accurate, it also sounds lovely and slightly archaic all at the same time. I think maybe it's also due to the word's old English--as opposed to Latinate--roots. I know little about such matters but I do remember some years ago a writer describing her wish that we would use more Anglo-Saxon rather than Latin phrases in our speech and writing. One of her examples that stuck in my mind was 'bird lore' vs ornithology. She had a point! And of course Heaney would have agreed; have a listen to this (apologies to those on devices that aren't showing the link to the youtube video; a bug somewhere along the way):



Donegal was, as ever, a wonderful break, but there was work to be done in my garden - taking advantage of winter quietness and dieback to clear out some Inula that has gotten out of hand. I also finally cut back the Molinia, and got rid of the debris from the cutting back I did earlier in the autumn: holly, honeysuckle and the old Echiums that provided so much delight in the summer.

Winter morning in Marley Park, 04 January. Thanks to B (at catchlight) for the photograph.
I'm a bit unhappy with my garden at the moment, but I'm not sure what to do to make it better. Those who know say that winter is the ideal time to take stock and do any of the hard lifting that would be even harder in the summer. But I seem to be a bit hemmed in by what's there already, by a lack of space and by a lack of imagination. I'll just have to keep plugging away and hope that inspiration comes. This spring and summer I'll also have the chance to flex the gardening muscle in our friends' garden in Donegal. Already the Olearia hedge we planted in October (as a shelter for the terrace behind) is looking very well settled in... Roll on the new growing season.

Speaking of new growing seasons, the narcissi and snowdrops are coming through, and I'm thinking alpine thoughts again. I wander into the glasshouse, staring at the alpines I have with the usual wintry mixture of hope and despair. More happily, some of the tiny narcissi and tulips that I planted in pots last autumn are starting to come through and I'm hoping to put some of them into one of the AGS shows in the spring. Oh but I've been bitten by the alpine bug and so I've ordered some more seeds from the AGS Seed Exchange - we'll see what happens with those... I'm still not sure that I have the patience and skill, but perhaps I'll surprise myself.

In other news, I decided that I need to learn more about the skills of drawing if I want to draw well the things that catch my interest (trees, you'll be surprised to hear; shells, rocks ...), so my wonderful Solstice present from B was a drawing course that brings me right back to basics: one of the first three-hour classes was spent learning to draw just lines.

Just. Lines.

The course I'm doing is really a road less travelled these days, it's very formal and at odds with the way much art teaching seems to have gone over the last few decades. I've an awfully long way to go, but I'm already enjoying the trek.

Iz takes the road more travelled. Christmas morning. 
Go well all.

15 December 2014

My turn

Well the year is about to turn... December Solstice this year is on Sunday, 21 December at 23:03 UTC.

My Solstice wreath this year, made from cuttings from the garden,
including the lovely Hedera helix 'Saggitifolia'
It's Winter Solstice where I'm sitting, but it'll be summer for some. I suffer from a terrible lack of imagination at this time of the year and find it almost impossible to imagine, in the depths of a cold, grey and rapidly darkening winter afternoon, just what things look like at the same time on a summer's day...

But some of you may remember the 'twenty-one' idea, which I hatched late last year. I wanted to record throughout the year the seasonal changes in some of the places I know well. I wanted to remind myself and you, dear reader, how the shifting light and temperatures ring the changes. At this latitude, on this western edge of the European continent, in the path of winds from the Atlantic Ocean, the seasons are not extreme, but they're different enough to require changes in plants and animals and us. The lack of light in the winter is a tough one for me, so I suppose this documenting of changes is a reminder to myself that, yes, the year is about to turn. And when it does, the light will return. Soon.

So, here we go, starting with the walk into my local park. It's a walk I do most mornings with Iz and so you may well spot a small schnauzer in some of these photos...

Heading into the park - at the solstices and equinoxes. 
The park is just a small suburban park in south Dublin. There's a mix of trees in there: scots pine, horse chestnut, oak, sycamore. There are also some very old conifers, including a giant redwood, some yews, and some others I'm not sure of - all no doubt left over from the original estate/demesne that was here before. And then there's the occasional surprise like the dogwood I spotted only this Spring, having missed it completely until then. Some observer I am...

Here are some of the oaks (and a scots pine or two!):

Scots pine and oak; some sycamore and ash lurking in the hedgerow

Sycamores, horse chestnuts and even a larch ring the changes throughout the year; I don't know how much longer that dead tree in the foreground will stand: the first storm of the autumn brought down a young ash tree in a nearby field

And finally, the year in a corner of my small north-facing garden
So having taken these photos throughout the year, and pulled them together this evening, what strikes me most is, not the changes in the plant life, but the changes in the angle and intensity of the light. Has this exercise helped my winter blues? Maybe a little. I hope it has helped yours too, if you suffer them!

As ever, I know that right now I just want to dive into Spring. And in the garden, the narcissi pushing through; the palest, tiniest buds on the snowdrops under the birches; the fattening flower-buds of the witch hazel... all of these are helping! This is yet another reason that I garden - the looking forward, the only constant being change. Love it.

It has been a tough year, but things are on the up; B is looking forward:

Good times ahead
And so am I. Happy Solstice all!