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Its early December…I can hardly believe how fast 2017 has zipped by, I feel barely out of ‘Summer mode’ – by the way, I’m in a not yet warmed up office, it’s twenty past seven in the morning, it’s dark and it’s minus 2 degrees outside my window (not much more in here…)…go figure…

It seems as the years go by, they proceed faster and faster. Of course, being busy, being productive and feeling you’re achieving progress and getting to things you doubted you might manage will all contribute to a feeling of time passing quickly. I remember when completing my time in The National Botanic Gardens, one of our lecturers key pieces of parting advice was that if we find ourselves in a job where we realise we spend time watching the clock – move on… Probably sound advice, to which I can happily say I do not relate.

It’s not been plain sailing this year, we’ve certainly had our challenges – storm damage occurring in the garden was I think the biggest single ‘spanner in the works’. It wasn’t nearly as extensive as it might have been, but at a time when we were still open, and had a lot of other work scheduled, a period of 4 weeks or so of clean up is impossible to absorb, and it certainly had a knock on effect. There was also one or two of our larger events which, though highlights of our year at Killruddery, had on their conclusion considerable impact on our work programme. These things though are all part and parcel of managing a large heritage garden, open to the public, and hosting lots of events of different kinds, and of course we welcome these various and diverse activities. Navigating our way through these sometimes demanding circumstances, and producing a good end product, while hopefully making some time for our developmental or remedial works brings a great degree of personal and professional accomplishment and satisfaction, and in fact the ‘juggling’ nature of things, while at times difficult, is ultimately a very gratifying part of our jobs.

One of the tasks that got ‘shunted’ a little, was our annual bulb planting efforts. This year, we planted about 3,500 bulbs. The biggest consideration is the citing of plantings – it must seem as though with all our space, finding a good position for almost anything would be easy. It’s not though – with most bulbs (most plants) the conditions in a particular (localised) spot possess subtle characteristics that can be the difference between a plant thriving as opposed to surviving, enduring for many years, or limping along and eventually fading. I will certainly admit to often ‘pushing the boundaries’ a little in terms of citing a plant in a spot where conditions may not be 100% ideal, or where practical concerns – soil, fine for 10 months of the year but perhaps a bit too dry in high Summer – (in our situation we may not be able to guarantee watering) maybe an issue. A certain spot maybe just right for a particular botanical must have, but ends up being exposed to hazards of the two legged variety, maybe receiving traffic from back of house type activities during certain events. We of course must be mindful of our own activities re maintenance, moving our own machinery around the garden, simple mowing etc. Nothing is quite as straightforward as it might seem to be, the broader macro considerations always come to the fore – which by the way, doesn’t mean we always get it right…(ssshhh…)

So, having failed in the the past with for example the snakes head lilly – Fritillaria meleagris – a really beautiful, small spring bulb, I wanted to try again. One of their key requirements is to avoid drying out too much, they’re a really easy, obliging, trouble free plant, happy to seed around and bulk a little in a few short years if they’re well positioned. My previous attempt bore poor results, planted under some Lime trees, in a (usually) not too dry spot, the moisture levels as it transpired were insufficient, and flowering was sparse and poor. This time, we’ve tried a location I hope will prove more hospitable…I suspect a broken water pipe of old in this area might help…well…you work with what you’ve got.

As I mentioned in previous ‘installments’, you can scarcely go wrong with the real reliables, my own favourite being daffodils. I don’t like them too loud or fussy, split coronas and fully double cultivars leave me cold…this year I opted for the classic dwarf, multi headed Narcissus ‘Minnow’ and a really beautiful one, new to me, Narcissus ‘Stainless’. This one is white and perfect, with ‘bulbs the size of apples’ as one staff member remarked. I look forward to seeing it, massed beneath one or two of our high(ish) profile trees. There are others too, but visitors will need to remember to drop by in the new year to see the Spring bulbs at their best. Many of the varieties I choose are selected with our opening times in mind, plenty of later daffodil varieties, erythronium, bluebells etc. There are some bulbs about that appear much earlier, I suppose planted for those living and working in Killruddery…and of course for their own botanical merits…

Winter of 2017 will be the first of, I estimate 4, maybe 5 winters, when we will hope to complete the lowering of the hedges in the Angles. Anyone who has visited Killruddery is sure to know this part of the garden. Some, who are so inclined, may have wondered about the maintenance or even the age and overall health of the hedges. The height throughout the Angles is about 10 – 11 foot – roughly 3.3 metres in modern parlance. They were at one time considerably higher, but to aid maintenance and try to improve general health, we are beginning the process of reducing the height to about 8 foot – close to 2.5 metres. Making them less top heavy, and a little more manageable for ongoing maintenance, should help things. A significant amount of work, and an enormous amount of material being generated, but overdue, and a very worthwhile task. This work will be carried out on the deciduous hedges during December and January – a small enough window. Hopefully, time will allow similar remedial work to be carried out on the Yew in the angles during March/April. We will also continue our use of young, bare root material to bolster the hedges, and I hope, plug some gaps, both here and at the Beech hedge pond.

Similar to around this time last year, and indeed the year before, we’ve recently completed the latest part of the planting of the car park area. Car park area 3 – A working title, is quite different in character from the first and second areas. Much more open, receiving more sunshine and exposure in general, this is the area closest to our ticket office, and will be passed by pretty much all our visitors. The soil here was poor, some previously completed operations had left the area covered in subsoil (the stuff usually beneath topsoil, lacking in fertility and devoid of hospitable or useful structure), and we firstly needed to incorporate about 60 tonnes of topsoil, and perhaps 20 – 30 tonnes of well rotted manure. Ideally, one would have a lot more preparation time, but as seems inevitable, lots of other things going on, not necessarily in our department, meant this job, though well flagged, ended up being ‘squished’ into an opportune opening at some point where a number of different schedules/ interests/ parties intersected (or more importantly didn’t…) allowing a window of opportunity to magically appear. So, with more or less all (Garden department) hands on deck, we managed to get the job mostly done over a couple of days– there’s a smallish corner yet to be planted and no doubt a tweak or two will be needed. The style of the planting is ‘looser’, using taller plants, involving a greater emphasis on texture and movement. I hope it will mature nicely…as always, time will tell.

So, as the year comes to an end, I feel we conclude on a positive note. A short time ago I felt we were quite behind on a lot of our targets, but a few good weeks have made all the difference, and back on track, we can soon begin our annual couple of days whereby we carry out our clean up and clean out of our work areas, sheds, machines etc.

By the end of this couple of days, our sheds, canteen, office, all our machines, tractors, mowers, buggies etc. will be as clean as they ever can be. We will cleanse, grease, polish, and oil, and attempt to bestow on our various equipment, on which we so heavily rely, a sense of care and attention…as if in gratitude for another hard working year.

The staff of the Garden at Killruddery – Ken, David, Vincent and I, would like to take this opportunity to wish all our visitors, regular and otherwise, our suppliers and partners, and all friends of Killruddery a happy and peaceful Christmas, and a bright, hopeful and exciting new year, and of course to extend our thanks for a great 2017.

Daragh Farren – December 2017

Darragh Farren

Killruddery Head Gardener

Right now, Summer feels like a long time ago. For me, it passed in a blur, as it does most years, but this year, very definitely it feels as though it really flew by. We were of course pretty busy here in the Garden Department, but I think coped reasonably well with the demands of high season.

We had the usual incidents of a machine breaking down from time to time, occasional flurries of unseasonal weather, the scheduling of various events to navigate, but I feel this year, we had our work running fairly smoothly.
Summer is of course largely about maintenance, keeping lawn areas mowed and clipped, edges looking sharp, watching for watering, keeping on top of weed and pest control, ensuring nice crisp hedges and numerous other weekly/ bi weekly tasks. In summer, apart from at the very peak of maintenance time, you attempt to find little bits of time for non routine work, a pocket of planting here of there, a little bit of regeneration or freshening up in someplace or other…
I would be tentative enough about doing much planting during the summer months – anything planted at this time needs particularly careful monitoring, and so, planting tends to be minimal enough through summer, and takes place in key, easy to watch areas.

We did however get a couple of pockets of Meconopsis (M.grandis, M.betonicifolia) planted in early summer, as well as squeezing a small number randomly through some things like hostas, hellebores etc, allowing them to peep through foliage, producing their superbly striking blues. A few bit and pieces went in along the Venus walk too, woodland perennials mostly.
Like any garden, we have some problem spots where we’ve struggled to establish planting, and I dare say we have more than most. One such area is located above the old pump for the Rock, behind a large Rhododendron. It’s a bit dry, pretty shady, not especially large, but is in it’s own way a high profile spot, passed by many visitors. We have now planted this area with Strobilanthes, a sub shrub native to Asia. Not a particularly showy plant, but possessing of a certain charm, producing it’s slightly salvia like purple flowers late in the season. I’ve found it to be an adaptable plant, easily propagated by cuttings and asking little in terms of maintenance. I hope it will survive here… I feel somewhat hopeful, but time will tell.

At time of writing, the first of the Autumn colours have well and truly begun. A nice day in Autumn can really show the beauty of this time of year, and, when they fall all those leaves are of course of great value to your compost heap. Autumn of 2016 was a particular spectacle – we had some low temperatures, which really activated the pigments involved in producing good autumn foliage, and many dry, bright days, without many high winds, all of which conspired to allow a lasting, and very beautiful display.


Autumn foliage colour is a very variable thing. Sometimes, a plant that is known for it’s autumn foliage, may not produce the display you would hope for. Climactic conditions (as mentioned above) and in particular high rainfall, and environmental factors can be at play – for example higher nitrogen or high rainfall levels may inhibit pigment production, good sunlight will help produce vibrant colour. In fact, it’s speculated by some, that climate change will lead to much more spectacular autumn colour in a climate like ours – warmer, drier summers leading to greater sugar levels, leading to enhanced colour. Of course, the counter speculation is that this may be to an extent offset by milder, damper winters…

Genetic factors can enter the equation also. For example a group of plants raised from seed will have variation within their number. Some members will quite simply show over a period of years, that they produce superior colour to some of their ‘siblings’. Of course, knowing that sexual plant production – (seed), produces variation, and vegetative propagation (using a piece of a plant – cutting, division etc.) produces an identical clone to the parent plant, one should select the best performing subjects within a group, and if possible, use perhaps cuttings to raise new material.

We of course, hope for a beautiful autumnal display, while waiting with rakes, blowers, collectors to gather as many leaves as we can for composting. Leaves are one of the very few materials that will produce a really good end product without the addition of any other ingredient. A mass of only grass clippings becomes a sodden, smelly mess, toxic too. A mass of only leaves will produce a dark, friable, healthy compost. It’s also advisable to collect leaves for reasons of plant/garden husbandry – a wet, thick mat of leaves spending weeks on a lawn may kill and will certainly weaken grass, while excessive amounts of leaves entering a pond for example, may lead to a build up of decomposing organic material, promoting an unhealthy environment for plants and fish. Paths too will be more likely to become treacherous underfoot if a layer of soggy leaves adheres to the surface, particularly in the case of paving slabs or concrete.

Our bulb planting will as usual take place over the autumn period. I always buy through an Irish supplier, a wide array being easily available each year. I always feel that with the really reliable spring bulbs – there’s nothing more reliable than a daffodil…you will get some of the best value for money you can spend on your garden. Daffodils are virtually impossible to fail with…ok, so they could rot if damaged pre planting, or if they’re in an overly damp area, but by and large, they have an enviably low failure rate. Some of the lesser known bulbs you might see in a catalogue will have much more exacting requirements, and may not be for the out and out novice, but the trusty daffodil is always a good bet. I personally tend to favour ones that are a little more muted than some, leaning toward varieties with paler colouring or perhaps an elongated trumpet and more interesting structure. There are some really good multi headed options available too, and a range of flowering times and stem heights – these are the kind of considerations you might allow for when making your choices. Many bulbs will bulk up pretty quickly, producing little offsets or babies after a couple of years in the ground. Depending on bulb type and variety, the length of time till flowering size maybe achieved varies quite a bit from perhaps 2 or 3 years, to maybe 6 or 7. Best practice is to, perhaps every 3 or so years, dig up and divide your clumps, replanting without delay – maybe the simplest bit of plant propagation any of us could do. Do this after flowering has finished, or before bulb growth begins – i.e. by late summer/early autumn.

Other reliable spring bulbs that may well feature in my soon to be placed order are things like Cyclamen – very beautiful, pretty tough, and depending on species choice lots of different flowering times, Erythronium – look this one up, they’re fairly reliable and are excellent in a woodland type setting, Fritillaria – I’ll probably go for some F. meleagris but may also treat myself to some of the larger (and sometimes a little pricey) F. imperialis. I probably won’t be able to resist some Eranthis hymalis while I’m at it…the winter aconite will vie with the better known snowdrop as first flower of the new year.

Our Autumn work will also include some of the usual turf care operations, and vital tasks such as mulching. Already we’ve been highlighting some of our many specimen trees, particularly in the angles, by making more generous circles in the turf beneath – in a nutshell, removing the turf close to the trunk. This is something that really shows the tree off beautifully, but in addition, is advisable in order to avoid damage when mowing and to aid establishment and continued health, reducing competition for available nutrient and water, much of which will be absorbed by grass growing close to the base of an immature tree. Mulching is then more effective, and should be applied roughly equal to the spread of the outside of the canopy. Avoid piling organic matter against the base of the trunk – this can encourage disease and sometimes suckering.

Within a couple of days, as I write, we will close for weekdays, leaving just the weekends in October. It’s been a good open season for the garden, and on behalf of my staff – Ken, David and Vincent, and I, we’d like to thank you for visiting and hope you enjoyed your time here. Each year we try to improve the garden, getting it more right on some occasions than others, but always in the hope that our visitors, regular and otherwise get a little pleasure, peace or whatever they need on a particular day or visit, and hopefully leaving each time with a little more of an appreciation of what makes Killruddery the special place it is.

Daragh Farren – September 2017

Usually, in the production of this seasonal blog, we aim to provide a small insight into some of the work carried out here in the gardens at Killruddery – the (sometimes mundane) aspects of regular maintenance, the less usual development or rejuvenation works that are carried out, perhaps new planting completed, some of the techniques we employ, and of course the complications we may encounter.  

 For the visitor to Killruddery, be they first timers from far away, unlikely to return for some time, or some of our very regular and familiar faces, it must be difficult to imagine what a place you enjoy during your leisure time is like as a workplace.

In an effort to give some small approximate idea of the kind of day to day occurrences that might crop up, this entry will hope to bring some light to what a particular day in my own role may entail.

What time do you start/finish your day?

We begin work, year round at 7.30, our finishing time is either 3.30 or 6.30 depending on the day.  There is no such thing as a typical day.  Of course we have peak times, obvious to most, but we never have quiet times, and never have anything other than a long list of jobs to do.  It’s true to say that some of the items that feature on this list are a little aspirational on my part, and some items can take literally years to get to.  A big part of my job, and one of the most crucial aspects of this department – there are 4 of us in total, is quite simply, being organised.  In essence, this is of course very simple, and if we manage it well, it mostly is…

What is the closest to a typical day that you can describe?

I would have a clear idea of what work I would want us to achieve over any period of a few weeks at a time.  For some parts of the year, a lot of time is spent on weekly or bi weekly maintenance, all the fairly routine stuff.  In many ways, as long as nothing unforeseen crops up (unforeseen things crop up all the time….pretty much every week…) this is work that we’re all well used to and familiar with and will progress without many difficulties.  The remaining time in any given period, and whether or not we can be clever and creative about how we complete our routine tasks, decides what additional works maybe possible.  And so, being organised, looking for efficiencies, and generally using our time well, and honing or altering our work practices – we do that to some degree every year, is  hugely important.  The first few minutes of every day, is spent organising and discussing amongst ourselves the general shape of the day, and what needs to happen.  Everyone has input….but, as I often say, this garden is not a democracy…

There is a lot of checking and monitoring too.  Recent plantings require regular scrutiny – look for signs of pest or disease, physical damage, and whether watering is required.  Other than with newly planted material (first year or so) we try to avoid watering.  We’ve got a fair bit of relatively recent additions about the gardens just now – the car park area of course, Thirty 1 metre or so Bay plants added at the Sylvan Theatre, some Primula, oddments in the Rockwood, Elizabeth’s walk and even a new tree or two.  The early months are crucial to plants that you hope will have a long life in the gardens, and if the correct plant choices have been made, contribute as best they can.  

What plants are your favourites?

While I’m up in the Rockwood, I won’t miss a chance to wander in the direction of some of my own favourites – Mysotidium hortensia, Dodocatheon media, some of the Primula, and a couple of young Magnolias, putting on their first reasonable show of flowers this year – Magnolias will often take a few years to flower well. I’m personally fond of and proud of the Rockwood, as it represents the largest area of new development in the garden in many years, really the only entirely new area added in generations.  It went from an area of heavy over growth to a reasonable and sizeable woodland garden over the course of a few years, and still is tweaked a little each year.

Another couple of favourites to check in with on my way back to the walled garden would certainly include the recently planted Meconopsis grandis and M. villosareferred to commonly to Himalayan poppies.  This group of plants, not true poppies, have a reputation for being tough to grow, requiring careful citing, and are difficult to produce in the nursery.  We seem (I’m happy to say) to have cracked it over the last couple of years after many many attempts I have a good number of different species and cultivars in the nursery awaiting homes around the garden, and more seedlings germinated this year.  It’s sometimes challenging to arrive at a decision as to where particular plants might end up, but for sure I’ll look to get more Meconopsis planted in the near future. While I’m at this spot, I’ll say a quick hello to another favourite, Polygonatum verticiliatum, a subtle plant, with a relaxed feel – this is most certainly a plant I intend to acquire in greater numbers, and plant in more locations.  I think it’s a beauty, a real plant lovers plant, though, these things are entirely subjective I suppose…

What’s your favourite part of the job?

Nursery work and plant production is one of my favourite parts of my job, something I’ve always loved.  This year, I’ve decided to begin growing some shrubs and maybe trees in the nursery to larger sizes.  Although plants will generally establish more readily when young, there’s a need sometimes to have larger specimens to hand.  With our increased footfall, establishing or rejuvenating areas of planting has potentially one or two added complications.  Because of this slightly different approach, I’m in the process of potting selected specimens on, and altering very slightly some aspects of the layout of the nursery.  We’ve also had another great year of seed sowing, and so right now I’m feeling pressure of something of a back log of nursery work.  When time presents over these weeks, I need to put a lot of effort into this area.  Its always a bit of a juggling act at this time of year, but I hope that later today, and certainly this week will see some time allocated to this.

How about your least favourite?

There’s lots of machinery here in Killruddery…most regular visitors have I’m sure on many occasions had their tranquillity/ peace shattered by some of our many work vehicles intruding in whatever part of the garden they may be enjoying.  Good machinery is obviously essential, particularly considering the scale and kind of garden we have here, and we clearly could not manage without the fairly extensive range of equipment we have on site.  Of course, the drawback is that machinery doesn’t always co operate…occasionally things become moody and erratic…things will break…parts will wear out…occasionally inexplicable events will occur…things an insurance company may describe as an ‘act of God’…  All part and parcel, but dealing with machinery problems is probably the part of my job I like least.  We do well by and large, routine maintenance, careful operation by skilled users, and general care and attention means that we don’t suffer more than our fair share of problems, and it’s an area that we’ve improved on over recent years.  It does happen though, and only a couple of weeks ago two of our most important machines were out of action at the same time  – most unhelpful at this time of year.  This morning though, we had a problem with one of our ride on mowers and when almost reaching the point of giving up, hit upon the necessary adjustment, (involving a solenoid valve and a no.14 spanner).  It’s greatly satisfying to resolve these things without calling in a pro, and we do get the occasional result in this area.  Still though…worst part of this job… 

Alongside the frustration of machinery difficulties, there’s plenty of satisfaction in managing and working in a fine garden such as Killruddery.  Achieving our usual tasks to the correct standard is always gratifying, and to boot, we have the pleasure once in awhile of getting through a project that may have been ‘bubbling’ away for a considerable time.  

What are your future plans for the gardens?

I hope next week, that we will put the finishing touches to the realignment and replanting of the Ribbon garden.  This is a really challenging area, one of the most irritating parts of the garden over a period of years, as I feel to date, I’ve not really got it right.  It’s subject to a lot of foot traffic, severe compaction both of turf and beds has conspired to create tremendous difficulty.  These are ongoing issues, and it will be necessary for us to manage this as best we can, but there were other problems here too.  For years I’ve been looking at the alignment of the beds, urns and granite in this area, the lines all wrong, the layout so askew as to be embarrassing.  All the years spent looking, while simultaneously trying to ignore…  Over the last while, we set about re-cutting all the beds, re aligning the various features, and making widths and positioning of the key aspects consistent and (mostly) correct.  This is now finished, and today we begin digging the area.  Organic material will be incorporated and then our new plants will go in.  We’ll plant formally, using a line to achieve correct positioning.  We have over 200 Geranium ‘Rozanne’ ready to go, enough for everyone who worked on this technically challenging task to sate themselves on the more obviously pleasant concluding component.

How much of a challenge is it to maintain the gardens, particularly with our famous Irish weather?

All jobs have their high and low points I’m sure.  Thankfully more ups than downs in this job.  Challenges are many, pressure a constant, and the drive and desire to achieve our best ever present. Naturally, things like weather bring a variable over which we can hope to have little influence, but we can to a good degree, forward plan.  Correct equipment and sufficient skill throughout our team, ensures that at short notice, having consulted a weather forecast, we can tear up our existing plans, and mobilise to quickly complete particular jobs that perhaps in a couple of hours will be impossible.  There’s always an amount of indoor work, machinery cleaning and maintenance, nursery work etc., and some sheltered areas of the garden where certain work maybe carried out even in especially poor conditions.  Whatever the weather, there are things to be done, and while our wonderful, temperate climate is bound to cause difficulties at times, mostly, good planning and a lengthy ‘wet work’ list allow us to muddle through.

I’m immensely proud of the gardens here at Killruddery, immensely proud of the estate too, and the part that my department and I play.  It really is an honour to be in some way a custodian of these fabulous, and relevant gardens, and to have a role to play in this wonderful piece of heritage and history that is Killruddery. The professionalism of our colleagues outside the garden department is awe inducing, and regularly I see them in action and am reminded of their talent and dedication, in aspects of Killruddery about which I have no skills or knowledge.  They’re inspiring, and frankly its easy to bring your best to this job, whatever that might be.  Due to the more personal nature of this particular blog, I’ll take the opportunity to thank my own 3 close colleagues – Ken, David and Colm. I guide and organise, occasionally grumble and moan, but these 3 guys are the ones on the ground day in day out, the guys that implement my various whims and notions.  They do so with utmost commitment and pride in their work and in ‘their’ garden, and (mostly) in good humour and with minimal griping.  And 3 finer colleagues I could not have.

Daragh Farren – May 2017

Head Gardeners blog – Spring 2017

As I write, sitting in my (way too cold) office, here in the walled garden at Killruddery, there is a distinctly un-Spring like feel to the day. Wind is increasing, driven rain pounding the windows, and there’s a sky, grey and disagreeable.

We have little room for complaint as far as the weather maybe concerned, not that that will stop us. But it has been the most gentle of Winters, few days of really cold weather, rainfall levels a fraction of their usual, particularly on the east coast, and a really decent amount of work completed in the garden in the first few weeks of the year. There is of course, more than enough time for Mother Nature to impose herself, reminding us who’s really in charge, and it’d be a foolish Head Gardener that might fail to have a list to hand, of important wet weather work. There is always work of that kind – nursery tasks, machinery maintenance, to name but a couple. Personally though, I have not known a Winter with so little inclement weather, and so many days where the ground (and general) conditions were conducive to achieving so much. Lets hope we don’t pay a high price later in the Spring or Summer.

One of the things we were very much aided in, was moving large amounts (probably close to 100 tonnes) of manure into the Rockwood. The logistics of mulching the Rockwood aren’t especially easy. We require sizeable amounts of material in the general area, though the layout of, and access around the area makes it challenging. Most years, any significant amount of machinery movement around the Rockwood leads to a rapid degradation of the path surfaces, and is in fact unsafe. Manure is of course a heavy material, a little not going a long way. Therefore, it’s a labour intensive and challenging activity in any year, though at least this year, the robust conditions under wheel, allowed an amount of distribution to be completed before application actually began. Even a small amount of rain quickly and comprehensively alters matters in this area, so it was hugely helpful to be able to get material in situ at the right time, ready to be applied. I think it entirely likely, that we will be waiting a long long time for another year in which this task in particular might go so smoothly.

Mulching is very much a job traditional to this time of year. As most readers with even a passing interest in plants know that there are considerable benefits to incorporating bulky organic material to the soil. Primarily for me, I look on it as a soil conditioner, improving fertility, allowing plants to feed more efficiently, of course magically, having an ‘opening up’ effect on heavy soils, while providing a more even texture and balance to light soils, reducing leaching and enabling improved nutrient and water retention and uptake. It really is probably the best single activity you can do to improve soil in planted areas. We use manure in most areas, but in some, depending on what we might be growing, we use a much lighter garden compost, from our own bays here in the walled garden. We’re through quite afew areas by now, Parterre, South Border, Knot garden and Venus walk all completed, as well as areas beneath some of our younger specimen trees. In the coming weeks, the Rockwood will be completed, and a number of other areas will receive similar treatment. It is worth keeping in mind, that large scale addition of manure over time, can in some cases lead to a lowering of the soils pH – acidity levels. This can be counteracted using applications of lime, but is useful at least to be aware of.

Spring time sees a number of routine pruning jobs requiring attention. We’ve already reduced the height of our Roses, particularly the Rosa ‘Queen of Sweden’ at the parterre. This was done in late December, prior to the proper pruning they will receive in probably late February. This is in an effort to reduce wind rock, something roses are susceptible to, and something which is known to promote sucker production from the grafted root stocks. Any hardy shrubs in need of pruning have by and large been completed during say January, slightly more delicate subjects will be left until much closer to (hopefully) proper Spring time and more reliable weather. If pruned too early, the risk exists of young, tender growth being encouraged, and later damaged should a cold, inclement spell occur. Grasses too, are best cut back a little closer to Spring proper, late February or early March being fairly ideal. In most cases, the entire clump is clipped to afew inches from ground level, taking just afew weeks to produce a fine, lush, fresh display of foliage. Around the same time as many of these subjects are pruned, a light dressing of a compound, general fertiliser will be applied.

Less an annual routine – (though this will be the third year) will be the continued pruning of the Irish Yews, two of which are close to the ticket office, the remaining six closer to the Orangery. This is a delicate enough job… A gargantuan amount of work in the first year, its a much less substantial (in terms of material removed) matter this year and last. At this point, it’s a question of pinching the trees in, little by little. The kind of considerations include overall shape and vigour in different parts of each individual specimen, the number, location and strength of available shoots, stems or branches in each. What to retain or remove, be it due to direction of growth, making space for shoots I want to promote, crossing branches etc. It’s a process that needs careful judgement, each cut at this point is important, and is a decision in itself. It’s slow, and something that will continue for some time to come, but it’s gone reasonably well so far, and we feel the trees are progressing, though the prospective outcome for some is better than for others.

Most of the planting work we had lined up was completed in a really productive Autumn period. The single biggest area was the second side of the upper car park, with a large number of bare root hedging plants also getting used, as well as bulb planting. We have some smaller areas to be done in the next while, mostly underplanting in key spots, some areas where we might want to bulk up groups of plants, and one or two small areas that need a little refreshing, most of these in the Rockwood. It’s very early days, but our Autumn planting is all holding up well. I was a little surprised to see the Colchicum giganteum flowering. Planted on November 17th, they were in flower right after Christmas, and still, early February, are providing colour. They would have been expected to flower around September or October next, and hopefully we can still look forward to that. I really don’t know whether their show is a response to the mild Winter, but either way, they continue to look good, providing a visible splash of colour from some distance away, beneath the canopy of Anthony’s Liriodendron tulipifera.

I’ve always really enjoyed all forms of propagation and nursery work in general. For me, producing new plants endures as one of my favourite aspects of our work here at Killruddery. Many of the subjects we grow quite frequently are easy enough – various different Primula (a personal favourite), some grasses, scaboisa, some cultivated forms of Foxgloves to name a few. Each year though, we also try things that have previously proved to be stubborn or downright uncooperative. Last year I had a bumper year, several genera that I had previously had at best limited success with producing decent results, and so, feeling buoyed, am hoping in due course to be able to report some similar outcomes later this year. Anyone can have a go at seed sowing. We use a normal potting compost, sieved to give a really fine, soft, smooth media, perfect for tiny roots to push through. Adding a little perlite helps keep the compost open, and assists with some water retention. There’s numerous very easy subjects widely available – favourites like sweet pea, nasturtium, verbascum and viola are almost foolproof and great for a beginner, even allowing for little or no extra equipment of facilities. Have a go, I (almost) guarantee you’ll get an enormous feeling of accomplishment from even the most modest of triumphs.

Many other tasks are important around now – the usual aeration around lawn areas, some early mowing has taken place, more is certainly due. Lawn feeding will happen in late Spring, weed control will become increasingly necessary, lots more seeds to be sown too. Some potting and division in the nursery, and a lot of urgent work along the avenue, both turf repairs and some tree work. Lots more areas to be cleaned up before growth really ramps up.

With all that ahead, along with the various hiccups and bumps that occur, the return of our visiting members and the resumption of the many planned events and functions and it’s a good thing we’ve enjoyed a nice quiet, restful Winter…..as if!

Daragh Farren, Head Gardener – February 2017

great-autumn-oak-colourFollowing a particularly dry and notably mild Autumn, Winter has slowly crept in and made it’s presence felt, although still, with some definite exceptions, it doesn’t feel like we’ve had too many especially cold days.

We’ve had a really good Autumn and early Winter from the point of view of work being completed. This Autumn past, has been as beautiful as I remember as far as colour is concerned, the prevalent weather conditions allowing a fine display to be better sustained. Our deciduous trees and shrubs gain their Autumn colour when the production of chlorophyll slows with the reduction in photo period (amount of daylight) and photo intensity (quality of light) which allows other chemicals and pigments always present in leaves – to different extents in various genus, to show through, thus producing the beautiful Autumn colours we’ve all enjoyed this year. The benign conditions – few heavy winds, slow onset of cold weather etc. allowed foliage to be held for longer than most years, producing a more abundant, fuller, and truly splendid display.

These pleasant conditions have also been a great help to us in terms of progressing our usual jobs for this time of year, not to mention allowing some good momentum with our program of additional works. We’ve spent a little less time in the Rockwood over the last probably 2 years than might be ideal, and took the opportunity to address this in part at least. Much of the deadwood and general debris that will always tend to accumulate in an area like this has been cleared, some pruning carried out, and some newly harvested material used to redefine some of the paths, edges and walkways. There’s always so much more to do in an area like this, you really can never be finished. That said, I anticipate we will spend a significant amount of time here through January and February. A huge amount of mulching is due, a big post Autumn clean up on the cards also. There is likely to be afew pockets of new plants used here and there, and probably some more pruning will be required. Thankfully, the overall good progress on our current work plans should enable us to devote ourselves a little more to areas like the Rockwood, where, when pressure of work and workload comes to bear, are among the areas that can get dropped form our thoughts.

bare-root-beechReaders of old may recall my keenness for the use of bare root material. The cost of plants available in this form are always a fraction of those produced in the more familiar containerised form. The kind of material typically associated with bare root planting are the usual hardy deciduous hedging type plants and trees, but a wider selection of material can be bought this way. I would always advise a hedge in particular be planted bare root – nominal cost, easier and quicker to plant and a better, much faster to establish result – it really is a no brainer. This year, we will plant about 550 bare root hedging plants, and are already well underway. No new hedges this year, but a small area of Hawthorn being extended near the Bowling green area, with the bulk of the planting being used to fill gaps, and act as replacement plants to some of the ageing constituents in the Beech, Hornbeam and Lime hedges in the angles and Beech Hedge Pond. I intend each Winter over the next number of years to rejuvenate the pond area and Angles hedges in this way, hopefully managing to have reasonable plants in situ, to take over from some of the older ones, now displaying considerable decrepitude.

bulb-planting-beneath-yewBulb planting is traditionally an Autumn job. Although not quite fitting into the ‘regular maintenance’ column, it feels a little like something that is very much an annual fixture at this time of year. More I suppose an aspect of the development of the garden, we will always do some bulb planting around October/ November, and I find myself in recent years itching to try things that are a little different. It’s certainly true to say that you pretty much can’t fail with the staples – Daffodils especially are available in so many forms and varieties, with variations on colour, height, flowering time, structure etc., – I find it troublesome to whittle my order down to manageable (monetarily and from the point of view of a good planting location) proportions… You’ll always get a very high level of success with the ‘usual suspects’ as far as Spring bulbs go, but trying other things with slightly more exacting requirements re soil and location can be fun and rewarding too. This year, we used a couple of different daffodils – Narcissus ‘Bravoure’ one which I’m fond of – I don’t like them too fussy, and a variety called N. ‘Avalanche’ – a new one for us, promising good fragrance and multi headed flower stems. In addition, we mass planted some Cyclamen hederifolium beneath some Yew, and again trying for something a little different, also as a mass planting, we tried some Colchicum. Colchicum are an Autumn flowering bulb (as is the Cyclamen hederifolium) and in structure resemble a Crocus. When choosing a variety of Colchicum, the flower colour of the one I went for was described to me by my supplier as ‘knicker pink’… With that kind of imagery, my mind was made up, Colchicum ‘Giant’ is was to be. Planted beneath Anthony’s Liriodendron tulipifera, we’ll hopefully see a worthy display in 10 or 11 months time.

planting-underway-at-carparkThe single largest job completed in this period has been planting the second side of the top carpark. It’s pretty much exactly 12 months since we planted the first side. I recall clearly the terrible weather while we planted, and the seemingly inhospitable soil in this area. We planted with a slow release general fertiliser and additional mycorrizal fungi, and this along with timing of planting (Autumn – optimum time) I feel has been the deciding factor (that and the generally, outstandingly wonderful techniques and abilities of my fantastic colleagues…). The planting here, despite the soil conditions, has done really well. The second side was a very different prospect, the weather was beautiful, and having cleared the area, raised the tree canopies and incorporated about 300 tonnes of soil and 50 tonnes of manure, we were planting into very a favourable environment. Several hundred plants were used, almost all either produced on site through seed, cuttings or division, or else grown on in the nursery from plugs or liners (very young plants) over the last year or so. We would have planned ahead with our nursery work, knowing we would need a large number of reasonably reliable mostly shade loving/ tolerant plants. A nice mix has been used, everything from Hydrangeas, Epimediums, Geraniums, Primula, Astilbes, Pachysandra, Thalictrums, Hellebores and many many others. We finished the area off with 50 kgs of daffodil bulbs, and a small fence will be erected here to define and protect the planting a little bit.beautiful-autumn-display

We’ve also planted some Roses, completed some turf repairs, cumulatively spent an eternity chasing leaves, and prepared a lot of our planted areas for mulching. Its been a great period for us, really productive and satisfying and I feel our programme of work is in pretty good shape. Despite all this, post Christmas we will have a full and busy work schedule, but at our momentum is good right now, and we’ll aim to maintain that.

Soon enough, shortly before the Christmas break, my neurosis will kick in (it’s never that far away…) and we’ll begin our ‘Spring’ cleaning of all our sheds and outbuildings. We’ll give our many hard working machines the best cleaning they’ll get till the same time next year, everything oiled and greased, maybe even some paint touch ups and windows cleaned. Hand and power tools will get cleaned, linseed oil might magically make its way onto tool handles – it is Christmas after all…

My office floor will get a clean, and I may even work through some of the stacks of paper on my desk. The garden canteen…well… that’s another story…

To all our members, visitors and clients, Happy Christmas and Happy New Year from Daragh, Dave, Ken and Colm in the garden department.

Daragh Farren, Head Gardener – December 2016


Garden Trees lawn misty WS5 11Here in the garden department, following an especially dry Summer period, we started to notice some early mornings feeling quite Autumnal from probably about the middle of August or thereabouts. We still had some very warm and sunny days to come, especially at the very end of the month, but inevitably, our collective thoughts were toward an Autumn work schedule.

Summer 2016 was maybe the driest I can recall in my time here, with one possible exception. At times, there was reasonable levels of rainfall both just north of our location, and marginally to the south…Killruddery however, remained stubbornly dry, the lawns gradually turning brown, grass growth becoming increasingly negligible, ornamental plants under demonstrable duress, and of course, theGarden Autmunal Trees WS5 11 long ponds looking unpleasantly swamp like as the water level dropped. We had a period of pretty good summer temperatures, with close to zero rainfall for a good 6 weeks, and it took a hefty toll on the gardens appearance.

The question, during such periods of when to water, how much water etc. is not a straightforward one, particularly on the kind of scale by which we operate in the formal gardens. In a more domestic type scenario, or in a more contained environment with a smaller footprint, some of the considerations are less broad. In short, if you decide to water on a small(ish) scale site, the practicalities of administering water are a lot more manageable…as is the prospect of delivering adequate water, which is at least as big a consideration as whether or not to water in the first place. Leaving aside matters of water conservation (at Killruddery we have our own wells) you need to decide if and when watering becomes essential. When watering plants in the open ground in times of drought, a good soaking with less frequency is more advisable than a ‘little and often’ type approach. Smaller amounts of water being administered can lead to more shallow rooting, potentially encouraging plant roots to begin to move toward the soil surface – where the water you are providing is available. This doesn’t aid the long term durability of plants. There are times however, when if certain plants are to be sustained, watering is necessary. We never water lawn areas, even those close to the house. To do so would be utterly impractical, and would be to begin something we would not be able to continue. Of course, it would mean I wouldn’t need to worry about the grass colour, or whether we can feed or not…

Some of our ornamental plants inevitably will need watering from time to time. We would tolerate a degree of suffering on the part of our plants, and will certainly (reluctantly) accept things looking IMG_9828-(people-in-the-garden)lacklustre and below par before we begin to intervene. And when we take the decision to water, it needs to be done in a targeted yet thorough fashion. The obvious early candidates are the likes of our many clusters of primula, located in the Rockwood amongst other places, also things like Hydrangeas, and any young or recently planted material. As the dry spell continued, watering had to be extended, meaning trailers full of water being transported around the garden. Finally, on August 17th, while our annual outdoor theatre event was taking place, what I would call some decent rain arrived. Poor Zorro cut a forlorn figure for sure, and the other cast and crew members, visitors and Killruddery staff who stoically endured the awful (unless you were of the garden department) conditions would I’m sure have favoured a further postponement of the badly needed rain, but I must confess, I was relieved we finally were receiving a good soaking.

The huge reduction in growth resulting from the summer conditions, does afford one or two other opportunities… The long ponds, now looking well below their best (they never look great when almost empty…), had a large amount of material removed – branches and other assorted debris. We also took the opportunity to reduce the presence of the water lilies. Visitors who know Killruddery for a number of years may recall the second long pond being almost entirely filled with lilies…beautiful in their own right, but not in keeping with the design of the garden. The long ponds act as the central axis of the gardens, a large part of their intended function being to act as giant mirrors, on a clear day, the surface reflecting the trees etc. in the general vicinity. This design concept was obviously impaired by the presence of large amounts of foliage, and therefore we’ve employed various measures in recent years to reduce their population. We still have a considerable number of them, happily growing in the round pond at the Beech hedge – having of course travelled downstream wildlife-on-pondsover a number of decades. Mother nature truly never misses an opening…

Late summer also sees the usual flurry of hedge cutting, weed control (some additional time available with the slowing of grass growth in almost all years, not just when very dry), nursery work – propagation by cuttings, potting, and many more. On the subject of nursery work – something I personally have always really enjoyed, this time of year is perfect for harvesting seed from many of the ornamental we commonly grow. Some of the easiest of subjects where seed harvesting is concerned are things like Poppys, Primula, Foxgloves, Sweet pea and many more. Timing is of obvious importance – too early and seed is unripe, too late and the seed maybe dispersed by the time you get to it. Gather seed on a dry day, straight into a paper bag. Plastic bags or indeed damp seeds are unsuitable for harvesting due to the greatly increased likelihood of rotting. Seed should be dried, cleaned and well labelled. I usually leave anything I collect in the Garden office for a few weeks (unless we’re Autumn sowing) to dry out completely and hopefully to allow the seed heads/ pods to open naturally and shed the goods. They should then be cleaned, ensuring freedom from pieces of chaff, stems, old seed pod and any general debris. You’ll almost certainly also encounter some very tiny, random creepy crawlies too – they will need to go… We use a series of small sieves and tweezers to ensure adequately cleaned seeds, though some subjects can be tricky. Some seeds will produce good results from Autumn sowing, though it’s advisable to ensure you can provide some amount of shelter from the worst of the winter weather. Germination will probably be a little slower than sowing in spring, but it can be a useful practice, and is particularly helpful Garden Bluebells and Wild Garlic MS5 11to us to spread the seed sowing programme rather than have it overly concentrated within a few weeks of the year. Seed harvesting commences around the end of August, and depending on species, can still be under way for many weeks depending on species.

Another annual Autumnal occupation is the planting of Spring flowering bulbs. I’ve yet to place my order, but can say that as is usual, it will feature a couple of varieties of Narcissus, Bluebells – Hyacinthoides non scripta – (The English Bluebell is a better choice than it’s more vigorous/ promiscuous Spanish counterpart), and maybe some Frittilaria or Cyclamen. There’s tremendous value to be had with Spring bulbs, particularly things like Narcissus. Prices are reasonable, failure rate low, and the speed at which they will bulk up can be impressive. As much as it may seem quite a chore to head out some morning, armed with a small trowel or spade, maybe in the wind or rain, and get planting, you be glad you did when flowering time comes round and colour about your garden may be in short supply. I strongly encourage bulb planting….consider large drifts at the edge of lawns, underplanting around deciduous trees, planting through areas that will later be filled with summer perennials – here you’ll achieve a great display, which will wind down as your herbaceous plants push through for their turn in the spotlight. Personally, I prefer to group particular varieties together, rather than opt for something described as for example ‘mixed daffodils’. In recent years, some of my favourites have included Narcissus Actea, N. ‘Mount Hood’ and N. ‘Jack Snipe’. For something a little different try Frittilaria meleagris, or any of the large Frittilaria imperiallis – a little more expensive but an impressive sight when grown well. Spring bulbs will begin with Snowdrops and Eranthus, probably around the end of January, and extend with many forms of daffodil, crocus, tulips, etc right through to late May depending on your choices. I recommend paying some attention to the floweorangery-border-line-outring time of your chosen varieties, thereby spreading any display you might achieve.

Finally, one of the more notable items of work we managed to complete over recent weeks was the planting of the Orangery border. It’s a high profile spot, seen by pretty much all visitors, and of course those attending events around the Orangery or house area. For most of the open season, visitors will have noticed the 3 Trachycarpus fortunei (palm like trees) standing alone in the otherwise empty bed. It’s an exposed site, receiving full sun (when there’s any to be received…) and tends toward being quite dry. Sometimes, when an important area requires a change, a horticultural equivalent to writers block can occur….however, we hit upon a planting plan, and began collecting the requisite plant material. Opting for pastel colours, and remaining mindful of the importance of this particular spot, as well as the specific site conditions, we used a mix of perennials chosen on the basis of form, texture and flowering colour and period. We planted densely, and expect a reasonably full effect relatively early into next season. We have some more planting in mind over the coming weeks and months, Autumn into Winter being the most favourable time to carry out planting jobs.

Hopefully, by the time we welcome back our visitors and members next Spring, looking forward to another great year of unique events and family fun at Killruddery, we’ll have some notable additions to the gardens and maybe even one or two specimen trees or new features to show off.

In the meantime….this garden doesn’t sleep…

GArden Rock people on bench WS4 11

April, May and June are, I think, my favourite months. I also find that September and October, when a so called ‘Indian summer’ occasionally appears, can also be special, but that’s another story.

It is very exciting to witness the spring migration of birds in April after the darkness of a drear winter. Spring here was mainly dry but with a biting cold wind from the north most days. Normally our swallows arrive on about 14th April, however I saw the first pair on 8th April and by 14th April another six pairs had arrived. Now we have a full compliment of approximately 30 pairs in our complex of buildings. Because of the cold in May insects, which provide the much needed protein to the migrating birds on their arrival from Africa, were very scarce and this delayed the nest building and laying of eggs. At the time of writing no young swallows have yet flown the nest.

Unfortunately we do not have any summer residents of the other hirondelle families such as House Martins, Sand Martins or Swifts. According to Birdwatch only 1% of modern buildings are suitable for both House Martins and Swifts within the island of Ireland.Black Bird

Our mallard ducks are early nesters but the first hatch appeared later than usual i.e. on 19th April. Ten ducklings on day one were rapidly reduced to three which happily are still surviving and doing well on the Long Ponds in the garden. A further two pairs of mallard hatched onto the Long Ponds but have lost their clutches, so also a pair on the Ace of Clubs pond and the dam. Such is the way with wild life, many are born; only a percentage making it to breeding age. Some good news is that the little grebes on the dam have hatched with three chicks and there is one grebe sitting on a nest in the middle of the left Long Pond. I am not sure she won’t desert the nest as she is too visible to corvids and humans.

The other good news is that there are two pairs of woodpeckers in two separate locations on the Estate still in their nests. Hopefully these will fledge successfully in this month of June. I have also seen two woodcock in separate areas both in breeding plumage. Sadly the resident woodcock population that breed and stay all year on the Estate has diminished compared to 30/40 years ago.

I have not heard a cuckoo this year which I much regret. We used to have two or three pairs on the Little Sugarloaf. The main host for the cuckoo’s eggs were the meadow pipit nests, a ground nesting bird utilising tussocky mountain grasses for its nest. These birds are now very scarce on the Estate due to more movement of farm stock and people.

Rapseed FeildAs regards mammals, our red squirrel population is small but stable. The grey squirrel, of the rat family and not to be confused with the red squirrel, are well culled by our two pairs of buzzards which is good. However our hares are suffering from attacks by the buzzards to their leverets. This is the first year that leverets in the garden area have not been seen. Rabbits do appear to have shown a positive increase but every year myxomatosis appears in August and inflicts casualties on the population.

We have had two dawn chorus expeditions led by Eanna O’Flynn and Justin Ivory. One on 1st May and one on 15th May. The latter one was particularly successful with 33 species of birds observed of which 27 produced good sing song. In particular a spotted flycatcher and a very active black cap. Our thanks to Eanna and Justin for their dedication and enthusiasm of our wildlife at Killruddery.

Jack Meath, June 2016.