Head Gardener’s Diary – Spring 2018

24/04/2018

Coming to write this, another frosty morning at the end of March, I worry I maybe tempting fate to so much as whisper about Spring. It feels like we’ve had the longest of Winters, so many cold mornings, more snow than we’re (hopefully) likely to see for a considerable time, and some suggestion amongst those who know, that there is certainly more cold weather to come. Gardens, plants and landscapes are resilient, and a scenario where no proper Winter cold occurs leads to it’s own difficulties. It is true that a proper burst of Winter weather will reduce populations of various pests and pathogens – rodents, aphids, slugs and snails etc., like fungal type diseases, don’t enjoy these periods.

Soil structure will benefit greatly too from proper exposure to frost. It was at one time traditional to roughly dig over areas to be replanted early in the Winter, leaving the exposed, roughly turned soil to the actions of the inevitable pending cold weather.

But, these benefits of Winter weather are just that….beneficial during winter. The later these conditions occur, the greater the inconvenience, and potentially the greater the damage to emerging growth. True to say that a layer of snow will insulate many plants, almost as if being ‘tucked in’ against the elements. Many low growing perennial or bulbous plants will be pretty unscathed by the snow events, though maybe in some cases a bit ‘squished’. Woody plants may have branches broken due to weight of snow, and ground conditions have at times been really poor, making simple moving around more challenging. One of the most noticeable things for me is damage to some woody plants that although not considered to be ‘fully hardy’ – (defined in general terms as a plant that will survive -15c) would rarely (at least on the east coast) suffer much damage. I’m thinking of for example Hoheria sexostyla, Myrtus luma, Eupatorium ligustrinum and some Solanums among others. It’s hardly surprising really, particularly considering their origins, but worth noting that it’s damage of a kind I’ve very seldom seen. Other plants that are showing signs of having suffered badly include Hydrangeas, Abutilons, Agapanthus and others. I expect most (not all) to recover and hopefully, as April begins, a more seasonal pattern will emerge…

Amidst all the weather related disruption, and some season long hires that have impinged a little on our work, we have got a reasonable amount done over recent months. The most noticeable work completed in the garden from the point of view of our visitors (apart from new toilets), will perhaps be the additional planting close to the ticket office/ entrance. I mentioned this in the last entry, but we’ve done some more work here, and I feel it’s looking interesting already. The planting we did in November is pretty informal. It’s an open, exposed and at times quite sunny (not lately…) site, very different from the previous areas planted near the car park, which are populated mostly with shade tolerant, woodland type plants. In the newer area, we’ve used afew different grasses, some thistle like plants, and afew reliable, flowering sun lovers. I think, looking over the area, afew of the constituents have succumbed to the attention of Mr Jack Frost, but nothing we can’t address. As we moved across the area, we wanted to separate the planting from the path to the entrance, opting to use Box hedging. I’m a big fan of Buxus, I love the structure and definition it brings. In this instance, I felt it would really delineate the path, and also the ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’ sign. Unfortunately, the implementation of this idea was a lot more work than might have been anticipated, due to enormous amounts of buried rock and assorted debris needing to be removed, and a certain amount of regrading and reshaping the terrain, in order that the necessary relation between the 2 rows of hedging be achieved.

I’m pretty pleased with the result, and it’s testament to those who worked on it, as it truly was heavy work, all done by hand.

In the last few days, we’ve completed the last bit of planting here for now, continuing with a theme similar in terms of plant use. There’s more cutting and tidying to do in the vicinity…as with so many things, it’s a work in progress…

Something that we probably are nicely on target with is mulching. I seem to mention it often, but that indicates the importance of the task and the benefits it brings. At time of writing, we’ve got round almost all areas that we might have wished to. We tend to sprinkle a small amount of general fertiliser about the base of plants prior to mulching. This year we had pelleted chicken manure to hand – smelly old stuff but it helps. Mulch goes on top, aiming for no less than 5 cm (2 inches). There are some plants that might not enjoy material placed right on their crowns, so generally we take a little care placing in and around small plants. Things like self sown Hellebore seedlings might be visible so at times there is some finesse required, but it is quite a physical job, and very rewarding.

We’re seeing some of our Spring bulbs well on their way to flowering now. Of course, some of the earlier bulbs have been doing their thing for afew weeks at this stage. The newly planted Frittilaria meleagris I mentioned last time, and the Narcissus ‘Stainless’ are progressing nicely. I’m also looking forward to seeing our planting of Narcissus ‘Minnow’ – the very first flower was visible last week. Erythronium, one of my favourites are about to flower around the Rockwood…some of the Cyclamen have flowered beautifully for weeks and weeks at this stage, and some of the real show piece bulbs like Eremurus himalaicus and Fritillaria imperialis are showing well. A year with a good amount of cold weather, is often a good year for Spring bulbs. Our snowdrops in particular have been good this year, serving as a reminder to lift and divide some of the better clumps over the next while. This is easily the best way to increase snowdrops, which possess none of the ease and reliability of some Spring bulbs when planted in dry form.

Seed sowing is something I never tire of. My enthusiasm for growing from seed is constant, and something I look forward to every year. I acquire any interesting new seed I can annually, through various means, memberships and associations, as well as harvesting a selection each year. I had an especially interesting collection of possibilities ready to sow this year. Quite a number of subjects I’d never tried before, many of which I felt would not be too easily germinated. I did several days of sowing around mid February, and I’ve most certainly not been helped by the amount of very cold weather that followed. I’ve seen very few signs by which to feel encouraged in a lot of cases, and would have hoped for more. But, it’s certainly not too late, and there are some stirrings. I’ll sow many more soon, and while my overall success or otherwise this year remains to be seen, I guess it’s all part of the fun. Perhaps if I sow afew ‘sure things’ that I can be certain of producing a good crop from, I’ll break my duck and get on a good roll…

Finally, we have some hedge restoration work coming up soon. Hard, rejuvinative cutting of evergreens is best done in late March and especially during April. This reflects the generally speaking less durable nature of many evergreens as opposed to (also generally speaking) tougher and fully dormant deciduous subjects, which can often be tackled in Winter. The theory is, that the material you cut hard – maybe reducing height dramatically or removing a side, is best done when regrowth and recovery can commence quickly. It’s sometimes helpful also to give a general feed a couple of weeks before cutting, or maybe even a light liquid feed shortly afterwards.

In our case, we’ve just completed the lowering of the Viburnum hedge near the water stops. It’s not a good hedge – no density, top heavy, lacking in vigour. The absolute correct approach would be to cut down very hard, close enough to ground level, but it’s felt we need to retain cover here, so were going from approximately 2.5 metres, to a little less than 2m. I’m hopeful that this will be sufficient to provoke a reaction from the hedge, causing a busting of growth from the lower regions of the plants within.

We have other hedge/ rejuvinative work planned…but I think I’ll save that for next time….

Daragh Farren

Head Gardener

March 2018