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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.

mecanopsis betonicifolia

Over the last 2 or 3 weeks, it really has felt as if summer has arrived. At time of writing, schools are not yet on holidays, state exams are underway (seeming to guarantee good weather…) and while things have of course been busy from a visitor’s point of view, particularly at weekends, the real peaks will come in the long, lazy days of the school holidays. The work programme in the garden has however been in full swing, everything growing faster than we can mobilize ourselves about the place. It’s almost as if you can hear the grass and weeds growing with ever more vigour and it feels that regardless of how well we organise ourselves, we’re permanently playing catch up – to be expected of course at this, easily the most intense few weeks of growth in any garden. The rate of growth this year has been compounded by the coolness of our spring, particularly at night – some really cool night’s right through May. Plants, grass all desperate to grow… there is what amounts almost to an explosion of pent up energy, resulting in a rapid acceleration in maintenance requirements.

For once, we’ve (mostly) been aided by the weather. Few days of rain making our routine maintenance any more challenging than it need be, by and large a pretty reasonable start to the early Summer.

Obviously as mentioned, merely trying to keep up with regular tasks is the priority at this time of year. Visitors are daily, weddings and other events take place frequently – the garden really must look as good as possible, while also allowing the visitors and those attending events to enjoy some relative peace and tranquillity. Grass cutting is of course a big job here at Killruddery, many areas at present being mowed twice weekly, the remainder once a week. Lawn edges, may not the first thing that might come to mind, but will quickly draw the eye if allowed to become scruffy, and are of particular importance in a formal garden. Weed control too, is obviously a big drain on our time (perhaps should be given more time some may say….). These tasks, along with watering, strimming, maintenance of paths and gravel form a significant part of our week about now. There is also the slightly less frequent, but still regular maintenance to be considered – hedge cutting, re-edging as opposed to edge trimming, nursery work etc.

Trachycarpus Fortune

Of course, we always try to find some time to make some tweaks and additions to the garden. This year has seen some small, but key areas of replanting. In the front courtyard, some very small and awkward beds have been improved by the addition of some beautifully proportioned Camellia ‘Donation’, under planted with Primula pulverulenta – simple, quite seasonal, but a nice combination in a difficult but high profile location. The front courtyard has also seen the addition of some Box – Buxus sempervirens, some Liriope muscari and some Jasminum polyanthum. Moving into the terrace area of the garden, we’ve removed some very ordinary shrubby material that was serving to greatly impede pedestrian progress around the Orangery lawn area. Some small alpine perennials will soon be added to the flagstone area outside the library windows, some clearing having been completed here.

The Orangery border too has received some attention. This area was a little tired and scruffy (I know the feeling…) and really is a key location. It deserved a little better. To date, a mere 3 plants have been added, the entire border having been cleared and well dug. Good sized Trachycarpus fortunei (pictured right) will bring the right tone to this bed, combining nicely with the stone work here, and in keeping with the love of Palm like plants of the era (the Orangery is a Victorian building – 1852). Further planting will take place here, with some nice material on order. We’ll keep it simple, a narrow colour palette, paying close attention to form and texture.

Recent visitors will have noticed our Sylvan theatre looking a little worse for wear. Currently undergoing some rejuvenation, we’ve taken a slice from the outside of the hedge, all the way round. A number of years ago, I removed a very significant amount of material from the inside of the theatre. Timed well, (around April) Bay – Laurus nobilis has great regenerative properties. However, the individual plants were pretty slow to show the kind of signs I was watching for in this case. I had delayed the work a little, mainly because of the low temperatures that persisted well into spring, but with a real reluctance on the part of Mother Nature to permit much of a rise in the mercury, any meaningful progress in terms of new buds and shoots was painfully slow. Although I wouldn’t say I was overly concerned, I will concede that I was pleasantly relieved to see the kind of signs I‘ve been waiting several weeks for over the last 10 days or so. We’re now in the process of installing a fence on the inside edge of the hedge, hopefully to provide physical protection against branches being damaged or the hedge being pulled out of shape. Following cutting, the hedge should re grow fuller and a little more densely, and will, in a relatively short time, disguise the fence, which will do its job, providing a spine like protection for many years to come.

Davidia involocrata

Many of our other hedges have also received their first trim of the year. We have Box hedging in 4 different locations, most receiving 2 and sometimes 3 cuts a year – remember, regular cutting of hedges encourages the dense production of lateral growth, giving a strong, healthy hedge for years to come. Good, appropriate hedging plants really respond to the correct treatment, in the medium and long term. The most high profile Box hedging in the garden is in 2 separate areas near the Tearooms. The Parterre – another of our Victorian features, is the area with the Roses, surrounded by the Yew, which has also received a first clipping. These hedges have been restored in recent years, having grown hugely out of shape over a period of decades. The restoration programme for the Box was 3 years, the Yew 4 years. All in all the process was pretty successful, leaving the hedges much closer to how the original design would have had them. Of course, if I’d known how sore the maintenance of the low hedge could be on the back….perhaps I would have thought twice.

As previously mentioned, something that will really smarten up any garden is careful attention to lawn, border and path edges. Keeping them neatly clipped is a great help, but once or twice a year, tackling the natural ‘creep’ of the turf, will, I assure you, prove to be time well spent. Using a half moon, and a carefully laid line – unless you’re following a kerb or suchlike, you ‘slice’ the excess away, leaving the area looking very sharp and cared for. This is an especially important job in a formal setting, but is worth doing in any scenario. We try to get around all the key areas before our opening time each year, and in fact, we’re almost ready to do this job again.
The restoration of our Irish Yew continues also. Signs here are really good, and I feel greatly encouraged by the manner of the response to the 2 heavy (but scrupulously careful) prunings over the last 2 years. Overall, of course much less material was removed this year compared with 2015. There was a little more effort to bring the trees in somewhat – hopefully over the coming years it will be possible to ‘pinch’ the trees inward more and more, aiming toward that fastigiate shape that was the original intention.

Seedlings in tunnel 2016

In the Spring blog, I mentioned seed sowing, something that’s a feature of every Spring and to a lesser degree every Autumn here at Killruddery. I’ve always loved nursery work and propagation in general, and would admit to indulging myself a little at times, experimenting here and there with plants that may have earned a reputation as a difficult subject, trying non text book approaches to particularly stubborn individual. There are times certainly, that success can be achieved when you least expect it, and indeed, times when some material, you’ve been reliably informed ‘would root in your ear’ can evade all your propagtionary efforts for years at a time. Propagation has provided me with immense satisfaction over the years, and I can never see myself tiring of it. This has been a great year for our seed programme – an abundance of notable successes, and a great quantity of the usual kind of material. We’ve had good germination with a number of subjects I’ve struggled with over the years – a broad, varied range of Mecanopsis – the Himalayan Poppy,– potentially tricky to germinate and fussy as regards growing on (for me at least), being most notable. Others worth a mention include Berkheya purpurea – not especially difficult but a plant I have a real fondness for, Araujia sericifera, Baptisia australis. Of course, having achieved these levels of germination, across a range of subjects, we now need to find time to complete the transplanting of what looks to be thousands of seedlings… This is one problem we will find a solution to…

Finally, I recently had a surprise on an otherwise run of the mill mid May morning. While in the angles, I noticed for the first time, our Davidia involocrata (pictured above left) in flower. This tree – also known as the Pocket handkerchief tree, The Ghost tree or The Dove tree, is a real beauty. The flowers themselves are nothing of note – dark, spherical, fairly small, and of limited impact. The at times jaw dropping beauty of this tree comes it’s true, with the flowers, but in fact the impressive aspect to this somewhat unusual specimen are the white tissue like bracts that accompany each flower. A well grown, mature specimen will produce an abundance of flowers and bracts, giving the appearance of a tree with innumerable small, white pocket handkerchiefs pinned to it – it’s spectacular. Our tree had reached a considerable age, and although a degree of maturity is required before any Davidia will flower, I had arrived at the view that our specimen may never manage it. And so, on a beautiful, but pretty normal morning, as I went about my work, ruminating on the usual obstacles and considerations of a busy week, this 27 year old managed to show me that as well as I know this wonderful garden, it continues to retain the ability to stop me in my tracks…

I have been struggling recently with a growing awareness of the amount of time my kids spend switched onto monitors or arguing to be allowed to watch or play sometimes to the detriment of my addled head. The truth is despite my good intentions, my kids have slipped into a screen addiction that is hard to bust. Don’t get me wrong, there are times where other, often outdoor, activities win out hands over feet to screens, however, they have to be compelling. Kids have to get a whiff of the added value to getting their small behinds out that door, or into the kitchen to bake, or to turning the whole of our sitting room into a den (my pet hate) for the whole day.

Family Photo For Blog.jpeg Sisters; Cristiona, myself, Anna, Mary Emma, early one morning in Donegal, 1985, photograph by Uncle Tony Beal


I spent my early childhood nestled in a glen under one of the hills of Donegal, with an ever growing family that would amount to nine children, two adults, usually about 3 goats, a dog, several farm cats and kittens, tons of chickens, ducks and various vegetables and fresh fish coming in off my fathers fishing boat. Our wider community in that rural landscape was several pairs of elderly people living in thatched or recently tiled cottages, sheep farmers, who tended many a pink or turquoise tufted mountain sheep.

Deep in my psyche, natural habitat for me is out and about on rocks, moss and heather, with the distant sound of falling water, running streams, calling lambs, answering sheep, clucking hens, and quacking ducks echoing round the hills… and lots of siblings calling or should I say shouting.

Fast forward 30 years and I am bringing up my own family. Having never had television (parental choice) or, of course like all of us, all the screens that we have today, I am amazed and sometimes dismayed by the fatal attraction my kids have to screens. I thought I would bring up my kids out and about in nature. I suppose I day-dreamed of lolling about in the forest, nursing my littlest while the others scrambled about on trees and rocks. My family’s reality is so different from that dream. Me: “Good morning darlings”. Note dream: They are going to wolf down their breakfast (happily) and grab whatever bows and arrows or other prop that their little imaginations have fixed on for a day in the great outdoors of their imagination. Note reality: “I don’t want to eat that, there’s nooooothing in the house I want to eat…Can we have our screen time now?”

book cover for blog


I’ve recently come across a book here in the many bookshelves of Killruddery House. It was published in 1911 and its called Three Hundred Games and Pastimes by E.V. Lucas and E.Lucas. I feel inspired (mostly by the gorgeous cover!). The challenge is on; how many activities can I carefully slip into their periphery over the next year, that will be a catalyst for no screen time.

Here are the rules

I’ll not be a puritan; some screen time is ok, surely, like 30 minutes a day (?)

Games I come up with will leave most of the development to my littles themselves.

I should have time to join in or to loll about near by, as most suitable and as suits their and my energy.

Some of the games should be so compelling that they begin to do them themselves, without my instigation, cause lets face it…I have got things to do!

If they are already on it, I won’t force them to play my game (fat chance)!

Here are some presumptions:

If my kids got outside and run about more, they would pick less and have a heartier appetite? Sauerkraut and white fish? (Ha!)

All kids, even my little rotters, feel very much themselves swinging from trees, rolling over rocks splashing in puddles, playing, pretending something is really something else for hours at a time with siblings and other kids or sometimes even on their own.

Fionnuala Aston Ardee, Killruddery House.
29 April 2016.

Killruddery Long Ponds 1

The latter part of winter, as always brought some welcome sights around the garden. Eranthus humilis – The Winter aconite, planted last autumn have been flowering beautifully in recent weeks beneath a Cercis siliquastrum in the Rhodie Rood. Usually, when we choose plants for the gardens here at Killruddery, we have our visitors in mind. These plants though, competing with snowdrops as the first flower of the New Year, are too early for most visitors to see. It’s a plant I’ve had a fondness for for many years, but was not growing here at all. Known to have a high failure rate when planted in its dry form (as with snowdrops) it’s not easy to find ‘in the green’.

Choosing a site for these winter flowering corms is tricky – moisture is a necessity, they also need sunshine and reasonable fertility and extended dry periods even in Summer will ‘do for them’. That said, when they’re happy, they can over the years naturalize quite spectacularly, as will be witnessed by visitors to the National Botanic Gardens in January and February. It’s nice to see them perform here at Killruddery, and hopefully we’ll increase the colony in time to come. Other spring bulbs have been probably a little ahead of most years and for sure the progression of some of the woodier plants seems advanced, our Prostranthera rotundifolia, for example – The Australian Mint Bush, were in flower at the start of February – several weeks earlier than usual.

20160208_095028This Winter, being particularly dull and dreary (and mild), with lots of wind and rain bringing poor ground conditions led to the loss of a number of large trees – always disappointing. For a number of reasons, from a garden and plant point of view, cold weather is important in winter. Soil structure benefits from frost, overwintering pest and disease numbers are reduced, and plants are forced into a proper ‘rest period’. Taking a glass half full overview though, at least we didn’t lose many plants in the nursery!

Like many people, I’d probably say that my favourite season in the garden is spring. Everything seems fresh and vibrant, full of possibility and potential. Colour is great – lawns look lush, the canopies developing on various trees doing so at varying rates, all look so promising. Look out for example for Birch trees coming into bud, Horse Chestnuts too.

Some of my other favourite signs of Spring are the fronds of all kinds of ferns unfurling – ensure you cut away last year’s leaves in order to properly see this annual spectacle – subtle and unceremonious, ferns, for me, a restful and relaxing group of plants, go ahead and ‘do their thing’. Any readers that are familiar with Sedum spectabile, also known as ‘The ice plant’, couldn’t fail to notice the plump, juicy, life filled buds pushing up from the crown of the plant. What could look more filled with vitality? A couple of years ago, we planted some Frittilaria imperiallis and Eremurus hymiliacus in the south border and one or two other spots. I noticed the emerging shoots in early February – now they seem to progress daily, almost before your eyes. They were a sure sign that regardless of what stage we were at with our late winter/ early spring work schedule, Mother nature, as always, knew precisely what she was doing….Spring was here.

Crocus in Garden SethOne of the most important jobs we’ve worked on in recent weeks is around the haha, located at the end of the ponds. The incorporation of a haha – for all intents and purposes a fairly deep ditch like excavation, in a garden setting, has a dual function – preventing livestock from entering the garden, and, hopefully to provide an unbroken view, allowing the garden in question to ‘borrow’ from the view beyond. In our case, we have the Deer park area and the extensive double Lime Avenue stretching out beyond the garden. The view to these was still there, but unbroken, it certainly was not. Considering the view in question runs from the house, over the long ponds and beyond, it’s a crucial one, down the entire central axis of the garden. Monsieur Bonet, having painstakingly set out this beautiful vista in the 1680’s, would no doubt not be too impressed with its appearance over recent years. The dangers are obvious, and many of are visitors are of tender years, and much exuberance. So, borne of necessity, several years ago we erected a fence across this whole area – making it safe, but preventing any maintenance of this most important area and view. Huge briars, tangled Ivy, scutch grass, Ash saplings, Willow and various others had colonised the entire side wall and top of the haha, compromising the integrity of the feature. We will of course reinstate the fence, but hopefully with our significant efforts in this area, combined with a tweaking of the installation of the fence, we will manage to keep this view closer to what it should be.

The Rockwood too, has had some much needed attention. We always have a good bit of cleaning and maintenance work in this area over winter and spring, but for various reasons, we’ve managed less time here this year than in other years. We lost a small number of sizeable trees in this area, and in a tight, difficult to access location; this is never easily dealt with. There was also a lot of edging that required replacing, again, more than in recent years. We hope also to look at some replacement plants in one or two beds, but things in general, look healthy and happy. More time due to be spent here in the coming weeks. Remember, a woodland garden is at its most interesting throughout spring.

SWoodland Anemone CU4 12pring pruning continues at this time, as well as cutting back any herbaceous perennials whose old material we left uncut for additional winter protection. In the next few days, our Nepeta ‘Walkers low’ planted in the parterre, close to the tearooms will be cut back. This year, we left all the 2015 growth on the plant, whereas last year we tidied them up in I suppose late autumn. We lost a small number of plants last year and I’m hoping that leaving the dead material on the plants over the winter will have provided a little extra protection. Of course, often it’s prolonged dampness that will kill plants, in which case the change of tactic maybe futile… The Roses here got their first proper pruning a couple of weeks ago. Planted in March 2015, Rosa ‘Queen of Sweden’ had a good first year. Wind rock had affected them somewhat, but they now look primed and ready to go for a productive, floriferous year.

Also traditional around this time of year is mulching. We’ve scaled back a little in some areas this year, mainly to allow time for other work to take place. The cumulative effect of (almost) annual mulching is extremely noticeable in many of our planted areas. The regularity and extent to which mulching should be carried out depends on a number of factors, primarily what you’re growing and the existing ground conditions. We use either well rotted manure or a much lighter, quite rich, largely leaf mould based garden compost. The compost, being a lighter, more open material, is more suitable for use around particular plants. A most important consideration is that the material you use, be well broken down. In general, particularly in a heavily planted area, a mulch added to the surface is sufficient – trying to fork it into the soil too much can disturb barely visible emerging plants, and is unnecessary. A well applied mulch will not only feed soil, suppress weeds, and conserve water, but also acts as a perfect foil to show your planting at its best.

20160229_092557We have our nursery work also; lots of seeds have been sown, many having been harvested here at Killruddery. Also, as is the case almost every year, I’ve sown quite afew seeds that I know there’s a significant chance might struggle to germinate at all. Tricky subjects, some of which I’ve tried for years with little success, but of course, the day they germinate will be a great day, whether in 2016 or not.

At this time of year, there are so many different jobs that need time and effort, and that’s before growth has really got going. Very soon, the weather will improve. Light intensity, temperatures and photo period will all increase, weed control, lawn care – mowing, edging, aerating, feeding, hedge cutting, nursery work and numerous other things will all vie and jostle for position and priority….there will scarcely be enough hours in the day.
And most days… there’s nowhere I’d rather be.

Daragh Farren
Head Gardener, Killruddery
March 2016

Concerns about the Gardens’ ecology in the face of weird weather.

Long Ponds in the RainThe mercurial weather pattern we have been experiencing since last spring has played havoc with the plants, trees, birds and wild animals.

Emerging from a very pleasant and early spring, the month of May until mid June hit us like winter preventing the hatching of insects and destroying young hatches of birds. Hedgehogs which emerged in April from hibernation must also have suffered. The magnificent blossoms on the magnolias and arboretum rhododendrons were all destroyed by the May deluges and the apple blossom on the trees in the walled garden did not escape either. Some butterflies emerged but were short lived and hardly a butterfly has been seen on their favourite shrubs last summer and autumn.

I don’t have to tell you that the months of July and August alternated between warm sunny days and heavy showers which finally died out giving us nearly eight weeks of no rain in September and October. Then the ground became so hard and dry that the water table dropped to such and extent that we had to turn off the fountains from lack of water pressure.

Bee on flower (Jane Freil) internet readyThe wind storms and heavy rain have resulted in the loss of mature trees in the gardens and surrounding landscape by up rooting, stripping and dismembering of their limbs and others having their trunks just snapped off. Big old trees over time allow water in through small holes and splits in their branches and trunks. Eventually over 80 to 100 years more water and particles of soil and humus get inside and rot the wood so that the trees become vulnerable in a big storm. The winter storms of 2013, 2014 and 2015 have all contributed to these losses. Over the past 4 years we have planted some 15,000 trees but I probably should try and plant more deciduous trees, however these require really good fencing to keep out the farm animals and wild deer so it becomes very expensive. Regular garden visitors will have noticed our yew trees becoming discoloured, no longer a lustrous dark green, dying back and shredding their foilage. In March 2011 the Department of Agriculture officials came to take biopsies from the yew trees. I was of the opinion that these sick trees had a bad pathogen called ‘Phytophera ramorum’. However I understand that the results were inconclusive and that these trees did not have phytophera. Of course they are over 250 years old but I think that the combination of heavy loam soil and heavy summer rainfalls since the year 2000 have a possible health impact on the yews. Sadly we continue to fell the dead ones.
Tree Trunk and Branches Farm
We have had an incredibly mild winter which is very helpful when it comes to heating bills but nature does not like this weather. A good hard frost over the winter months kills the bacteria in the soil and cleans everything ready for the spring. We already have daffodils about to burst into flower and the birds seem to think it is already time to think about courting and building nests. I fear the same disastrous May and June as last year which will be destructive to all plants animals and birds.

I hope I am proved wrong and that the coming spring and summer will be good weather conditions for all the ecology of living organisms that make up this Garden and Estate.

Jack Meath