Head Gardener’s Diary – Spring 2017

23/02/2017

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