31 January 2016


Poor January. Up at these latitudes (and points north), January gets such a bad rap. Post-festivities, post-indulgence January. On-the-dry January. Will-winter-ever-end, will-we-ever-get-paid January.

"January, sick and tired you've been hanging on me..." (who here remembers that song from the 70s!?)
January this year had one huge advantage though -- it wasn't dreary December, the wettest since records began. Storm after storm queueing up in the Atlantic to come blowing in with
 So. Much. Rain. 

Hart's Tongue by the swollen Glencullen River

Winter ferns in Knocksink woods

The Glencullen has risen above its banks a few times already this winter: submerging ferns and ivies here
A letter writer to an English newspaper suggested that our Met Services stop naming all the storms (Abigail, Barney, Clodagh, Desmond, Eva, Frank, Gertrude...) as "it's only encouraging them". Still, out and about with a lovely Canadian visitor we caught a little of the winter light filtering through a ruined ancient church window or illuminating an island's Martello tower.

Glendalough ruin in the fading light

Dalkey Island in the low winter light
The first of January saw us revving up the 'van for its first trip of the new year and a week later we were off again, this time to Laois, where the view from the 'van in the morning was captured in a really quick and dirty sketch.

View from the van, January: silver birch near the Slieve Bloom mountains

I'm not a great one for new years resolutions, but times of change always prompt a bit of thought and a bit of planning. Receiving a gift of a beautiful notebook (thanks lb!) helped me decide that this year it would be lovely to keep track of the year, not just in the garden (it says 'Garden Notes' on the outside so of course there'll have to be garden stuff in there), but also just to record, in words and sketches, what other things are going on: how frequently Izzy and I see foxes on the morning walks, which birds are coming into the garden, and, in what I hope will be a monthly feature, the 'view from the van'. This month's was a silver birch in K's garden, we'll see what next month's will be.

A happy schnauzer on a chilly morning near the Whitehorse river in Co Laois
Another gift was a 'Colour Dictionary' (Irojiten) from Japan. New pencils to play with!

Some of the playing has serious intent - getting those buttery yellows and ochres just right for the 'White Light' leaves for the Plandaí Oidhreachta project.

Colourin' (and some 'White Light' leaves)
Mount Venus Nursery opened their gate again this weekend for a Hamamelis Days weekend. Well of course I *had* to go up to have a look. I didn't buy another witch hazel, but instead came home with a beautiful Viburnum farreri. It's now in a large pot outside the kitchen window, underplanted with some cheap and cheerful small narcissi. It will give me a beautiful scent when I come home from the morning walk, and a lovely view out the kitchen window even on dark winter days. What's not to love about that? I had a brief chat with Oliver while up in the nursery, and both of us agreed that the standard advice to make sure you've evergreens for your winter garden just doesn't tell the whole story. Winter blossom and winter scent are what make the difference. Witch hazels, V. farreri, Daphne 'Jacqueline Postil' and a small but powerful Sarcococca humilis are doing the trick on my small patch.

View from the kitchen window: Viburnum farreri distracts from a bare winter garden.
Near the fence, Hamamelis mollis 'Pallida' lightens the winter blues.
And so to finish, a song. No particular tie-in with this one, it just came into my head recently. I could have given you a link to the original track, but you'll find it easily enough yourselves if you wish to. Here's Bruce Cockburn in more recent times, still singing his song well:

Go well all.

20 December 2015


Hedge-bandit, song-bomb, dart-beak, the wren 
hops in the thicket, flirt-eye; shy, brave, 
grubbing, winter’s scamp, but more than itself – 
ten requisite grams of the world’s weight.
Carol Ann Duffy The Wren Boys

The year turns at 04:48 (UT) on 22 December this year. As always it can't come soon enough though there's no doubt that this year the incredibly mild autumn and winter have helped shorten the journey into the shortest day.

Without the delights of growth and abundance to attract--or maybe distract--the eye, there's the time and space to notice different things.

One Saturday morning, we look out to see a wren walking on water... almost. The pool near the house is thronged with pondweed elbowing aside the water lilies and keeping them confined to their own end of the pond. All of these are strong enough to bear the weight of one small wren who delicately balances on the Canadian pondweed and pecks through it for tiny invertebrates that we can barely see. 'Dart-beak' indeed! We're surprised and delighted.

Other birds in the garden at the moment are more raucous (starlings), more noticeable (wood pigeons) or more infrequent in their visits (greenfinches, mistle thrushes), but all are equally welcome. The whirr of wings, the squabbles, the flitting movement scarcely seen, the tossing aside of leaves and twigs in the quest for grubs and worms, the gathering around the feeder: a winter garden with birds is a lively place; without them it's so much more dull and lifeless. We've had a severe reduction in the number of birds over the last couple of years, mainly down to neighbours' cats. I do wish that those who share their homes with cats would keep them indoors... I've no problem with what I think of as 'food chain predation': it's not pleasant to see a magpie or a sparrow hawk take some sparrows or robins, but they do it to feed their own young. Well-fed suburban cats simply do it because it's in their nature, and that sort of hunting upsets the balance very quickly in the tiny ecosystem of a few suburban back gardens.

Only a little bit away from the garden, on a another walk, I catch a heron taking flight on a grey winter's afternoon, disturbed by one small grey schnauzer rummaging on the banks.

Heron on the Slang 

Heron on the wing
And along that same stream a few days later, a thrush sings in the pre-dawn darkness, easily raising its refrain above the monotone of the traffic hum from a nearby road.

Late autumn and early winter have been warm, but oh the rain! We've had nothing like the flooding in the west of the country, but the rivers have been swollen and the skies leaden.

Swollen river after the rains
This morning we had some brief respite with only showers to worry about and some sunshine to light our way on a beach walk.

A shower heads up the Irish Sea
Low winter sun casts a beautiful light on both organic and inorganic objects:

Ochres and umbers in the winter light: a seaweed holdfast and a bicycle chain cassette
That division into organic and inorganic was the first bit of 'science' that I remember discovering... When I was about seven or eight or so, we had a book in school called 'Science from the Beginning' which showed early on in its pages how everything could be divided into 'alive', 'dead' and 'never alive'. I remember very clearly reading this and, in wonder, starting to go through all the things I could think of one by one in my head, classifying them and realising that yes, this could make sense of the world. That was probably the first step to finding my way into a study of science. Something that I'm so glad to say has been taken on by both my sons too.

Speaking of science, here's a new word I learnt on Twitter of late: cladoptosis (cladop = branch; ptosis = falling). After Storm Desmond swept through these islands, I noticed--as always after a winter storm--that many of the trees in the park had dropped small branches and twigs. I've always considered this as a sort of self-pruning and indeed it is! While some of the branches we see on the ground have broken in storms, many of them are shed cleanly by the tree, leaving neat abcission scars behind. A bit like the leaf-shedding of deciduous trees, though writ large. It ensures that the tree sheds the weaker branches which will include those that are not displaying their leaves in the optimum display (to catch the most light possible). All of this helps the tree remain strong and healthy and it's such a neat process.

Branches as well as leaves are shed in the autumn and winter
By the way, here's what an optimum arrangement of ivy leaves looks like, it's a view from above, as a bird would see it or, crucially, as the sunlight would hit it. No I didn't employ a drone or climb up a tree... it was another casualty of the storm, now lying horizontally on the ground.

A bird's eye view of ivy leaves with just the right arrangement to get as much light as possible
And speaking of sons, as I was a couple of paras ago, this week I'll be welcoming both of them home and we'll celebrate the turning of the year with friends and family. Here's the wreath I made, with bits from the garden, to welcome them home:

Happy Solstice all.

16 November 2015

Night Vision

In a week when my second fledgling left the nest, 'Night Vision' came to mind again. This is the song I used to sing in my head (I spared them any rendition of mine out loud :-)) when both my sons were little and indeed as they grew up. It was one of my parenting anthems, if you like; it's surely what any parent wants for their children:
I would shelter you
Keep you in light
But I can only teach you
Night vision
(You can find the lyrics and a list of all the writers of the song on this site.) You can listen to the song here:

Rumour has it that both much-loved sons, and their wonderful girlfriends, are doing well in London and Montréal; long may you stay in the light my dear ones.

Empty nest or not, day-to-day life goes on. Warm temperatures over the weekend meant a lot of tidying up in the garden. I don't overdo it--listening to wise admonitions from other gardeners to leave overwintering places for the beasties who share my patch--but there does come a time in the year's turning where I have to acknowledge the oncoming quietness of winter. For me, some judicious cutting back of dead and dying perennials helps that along. I think that many of those who advise us to leave the garden as is, allowing nature to take its own time etc. etc. probably garden on much larger patches than mine. I can see just about all of the garden from my back window, and the horizontal asters, collapsed grasses, slimy ends of Maianthemum, and raggy, burnt-looking leaves of Rodgersia eventually get to be too much to bear. It's not a scorched earth policy, by any means: I don't cut them all the way down but leave about 8cm or so to provide some winter shelter for the plant. I also don't do it all on one day (the garden isn't that small or maybe I'm not diligent enough), but there is something very satisfying about, as my father used to say, putting a bit of smacht on it.

Fallen stars: the asters gave in to Autumn winds a couple of weeks ago
And so the garden is looking very bare and rather dreary now, but Autumn has of course brought some wonderful colours. Just a couple of weeks ago, I gathered this small selection from a tidy-up of my dad's garden:

Autumn flowers and berries light up any room
And a few weeks before that, in late September, I brought together some flowers and foliage for a friend whose mother had just died. It was the first time I've made what's called a coffin spray and it includes the colours and some of the plants her mum loved, gathered from her mum's own garden, and from my garden and that of a friend, supplemented with a few plants bought in the Dublin flower market. It was an honour to be asked, and I should point out that the rather jaunty looking upside-down blue trug was not part of the arrangement! It was just a handy thing to stand the spray on while I was working on it in the back garden.

In memoriam Marcella B.
Some things I learnt while working on this:
  • a few hours' work doing something you enjoy just flies by (well we all know that one, right?) 
  • I enjoy making things that not only have aesthetic value but also have some meaning: this was especially important in this case, and there's very little that made it into the spray that didn't have some significance
  • ivy is a *great* filler
  • it turns out I do love colour 
  • undertakers find colour in funeral flowers 'interesting' (by which I think they meant, surprising)
Thanks again to LB for asking me to do this and being okay with my writing about it here.

My progress on the birch tree has been s-l-o-w. There has much hand wringing on my part about composition, and while that was going on in my head I was also trying to get the colours right for the changing autumnal leaves:

Still having trouble getting value as well as colour
(any arty friends reading this, feel free to comment here or on facebook with helpful hints!)
Raggedy leaves are more interesting to draw...
Yellows are tricky
All coloured pencil (Caran d'Ache Luminance and Faber-Castell Polychromos) on Fabriano Artistico, for those who wonder about such things.

To finish, some lovely worldwide webbiness. Looking at the picture of the asters, while I was compiling this blog, I thought of fallen stars (aster,  ‘a star’): via Latin from Greek astēr ‘star’.)
and that brought Frost's Star in a Stone Boat to mind. While looking for a link to bring you the poem, I found this piece by Kevin Keller; you might like to listen to it while you read the poem, which I've included below... you'll only need to take about seven minutes out of your day:

A Star In A Stoneboat
For Lincoln MacVeagh
Never tell me that not one star of all
That slip from heaven at night and softly fall
Has been picked up with stones to build a wall.
Some laborer found one faded and stone-cold,
And saving that its weight suggested gold
And tugged it from his first too certain hold,
He noticed nothing in it to remark.
He was not used to handling stars thrown dark
And lifeless from an interrupted arc.
He did not recognize in that smooth coal
The one thing palpable besides the soul
To penetrate the air in which we roll.
He did not see how like a flying thing
It brooded ant eggs, and had one large wing,
One not so large for flying in a ring,
And a long Bird of Paradise's tail
(Though these when not in use to fly and trail
It drew back in its body like a snail):
Nor know that be might move it from the spot—
The harm was done: from having been star-shot
The very nature of the soil was hot
And burning to yield flowers instead of grain,
Flowers fanned and not put out by all the rain
Poured on them by his prayers prayed in vain. 
He moved it roughly with an iron bar,
He loaded an old stoneboat with the star
And not, as you might think, a flying car, 
Such as even poets would admit perforce
More practical than Pegasus the horse
If it could put a star back in its course.
He dragged it through the plowed ground at a pace
But faintly reminiscent of the race
Of jostling rock in interstellar space.
It went for building stone, and I, as though
Commanded in a dream, forever go
To right the wrong that this should have been so.
Yet ask where else it could have gone as well,
I do not know—I cannot stop to tell:
He might have left it lying where it fell.
From following walls I never lift my eye,
Except at night to places in the sky
Where showers of charted meteors let fly.
Some may know what they seek in school and church,
And why they seek it there; for what I search
I must go measuring stone walls, perch on perch; 
Sure that though not a star of death and birth,
So not to be compared, perhaps, in worth
To such resorts of life as Mars and Earth— 
Though not, I say, a star of death and sin,
It yet has poles, and only needs a spin
To show its worldly nature and begin 
To chafe and shuffle in my calloused palm
And run off in strange tangents with my arm,
As fish do with the line in first alarm. 
Such as it is, it promises the prize
Of the one world complete in any size
That I am like to compass, fool or wise.  
Robert Frost
In a week where it was brought home to us once again how some of us choose death over life, fear over love, and ignorance over learning, it's good to remind ourselves that 'such resorts of life as Mars and Earth' are rare and precious and we need to treasure all lives as best we can.

27 October 2015

...and fallen leaves

Betty came by on her way
Said she had a word to say
About things today
And fallen leaves
from River Man, by Nick Drake

Have a listen to this new rendition by American singer Lizz Wright:

A mild and virtually wind-free October has meant that the leaves seem to have hung on for a lot longer than usual this year. A mild October feels like some sort of blessing, shortening winter as it does. But the last day or two have brought a change, and a southeasterly wind--and the rain borne on it--have brought us fallen leaves...

Japanese Maple in the garden, going all 'drama queen' about losing its leaves:
overnight the ground is covered

Rain and wind bring down glowing beech leaves near the stream
Maybe it's my appalling memory, I don't know if this happens to you dear reader, but every single year I am delighted anew by autumn leaves. On dull grey autumn days, the yellow-gold radiance of a stand of ash trees, the honeyed glow of a pile of damp beech leaves, the ruby fire of the Japanese maple -- all of these are a marvel to me. And while I'm singing Autumn's praises, may I put a word in for the joy of cycling? The route I take brings me over the Dodder river on a different bridge now than the ones I used to use and being on the bike means that when this gorgeous scene caught my eye the other morning, I was able to pull in and take a pic to share with you all. Even without the phone pic, I would have stopped. Couldn't have done this from a bus or from a car. Love the aul' bike.

Autumn on the Dodder river
Autumn in the garden means tidying up (though not tooo much: down to natural indolence on my part and leaving nice habitats for small beasties) and that includes the greenhouse. The tomato plants have been consigned to the compost heap and the last of the tomatoes themselves are being eaten now. I've tried to sort out some of my alpines in the hopes of getting them through the winter. But I've left the Shoo-fly plant alone:

Nicandra physalodes still blooming in the greenhouse
I just love how its surprising green-ness and its almost violet-blue flowers continue to whisper summer, while autumn is everywhere else. And its flower buds and later its seed pods are gorgeous things: you can see why its specific name is Nicandra physalodes: those seed pods look very like Physalis. Come the first serious frost it will succumb, even under glass, but that's okay, I'll enjoy it while I can. You may remember I tried out an #inktober drawing of one of its seed pods recently:

Seed pod of Nicandra physallodes

Far from fun #inktober sketches, the *real* paper awaits: Fabriano Artistico Extra White 300gsm. I've to get a portrait of the birch tree onto this. And make it look convincing, and maybe beautiful too. Oh dear.

Fear of the blank Fabriano page looms large...
After much displacement activity over the weekend (including house-cleaning, which will give you some indication of how scared I am) I worked on composition. I'm currently getting some great advice from my resident photographer and from artist friends. Some day soon I'll have to, you know, put pencil to paper. Watch this space.

Meanwhile, go well all.