Head Gardener’s Diary – Winter 2017

21/12/2017

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