3rd January 2003
the 3rd January 2003 brought the first hard frost of the winter to
Belfast. The right hand side of the garden consists of a north facing
panel fence, and with the sun still near its lowest point in the sky
during the day, the fence casts a shadow over one third of the garden
at this time of year. As a result, the plants in this area retain
a frost covering all day if the air temperature remains below freezing
point. This was the case all over the weekend, so that by Monday morning
the cumulative growth of frost on some of the plants resembled a light
covering of snow.
McIlwaine and Julie Brown from BBC Radio Ulster's "Gardeners'
Corner" did not need much persuasion to visit the garden
on Monday morning to see the effects and discuss the changes
that a covering of frost brings to the garden. Frost
especially enhances the appearance of evergreen foliage plants
such as the common box (Buxus sempervirens) , Leucothoe 'Rainbow'
and the holly Ilex aquifolium myrtifolia.
'Rainbow' prefers moist acid soil that is rich in organic matter.
Being a plant of woodland, it also likes a degree of shade.
Growing to a height of about four to six feet with a similar
spread, the plant has lance shaped green leaves streaked with
a gentle yellow. In autumn and winter, however, these leaves
change dramatically to a burgundy or maroon colour. Rimmed with
frost in my garden, the leaves take on the appearance of stained
glass. As a bonus, the plant also bears arching or dangling
sprays of cream lily of the valley shaped flowers, not unlike
those of the Pieris japonica, in spring.
holly Ilex aquifolium myrtifolia is a neat small leafed cultivar
of the common English holly. It is a male variety and mine is
conical in shape with a narrow growing habit. The dark green
leaves look as if they have a silver variegation when edged
can also seem to install life into dead seed heads and inanimate
objects. The sedum family with its mainly flat dead seed heads
gives probably the best surface for frost to form on. Covered
in frost a clump of sedum spectabile 'Autumn Glory' looks as
though it was dusted with icing sugar.
seed heads on the tall candelabra-like stem of the Verbena bonariensis
also look good smothered in frost
in the garden, the fine filigree pattern of ice crystals around
the rusty iron wings of a dragonfly sculpture (Photo 6) brings
a shimmering quality that mimics the translucent beauty of the
grasses, the seed heads which best show off frost are
those of the Miscanthus. The stems and seed heads of
Stipa gigantea have long since collapsed with the strong
winds and rain of autumn, but the miscanthus still stand
as erect as when the stems and seed heads first formed
in summer. Of particular merit are Miscanthus sinensis
'Silberfeder' and Miscanthus sinensis 'Malepartus'.
Both grow to between six and eight feet in height. 'Silberfeder'
has silky silvery white seed heads on straw coloured
stems while 'Malepartus' has Marie biscuit coloured
seed heads on a slightly darker stem. Malepartus looks
good against the cinnamon coloured stems of the climbing
hydrangea, Hydrangea petiolaris. Both these miscanthus
have the often mentioned attribute of Miscanthus seed
heads : seemingly able to draw the light from the sky
down into the seed head. (Continued at right)
This quality is best appreciated
when looking at a mass of seed heads on a mature clump
of the plant. The silky seed heads, which are made up
of separated 'fingers' of individual plumes, seem to glow
with light, particularly when viewed against the sky.
The individual fingers of plumes can seem to fuse together
when frost settles on them. I also have a non flowering
variety - Miscanthus sinensis 'Marlene'. This is an altogether
larger plant, growing to about ten feet in height and
resembling sugar cane in appearance. Conditions are not
warm enough for it to flower in Northern Ireland and it
did not flower further south in Mount Venus nursery, Dublin
where I got the plant. As with the aforementioned varieties
the stems and leaves of this plant are still intact but
are now a buttery yellow colour.
agave in a terracotta pot, which I should have moved
long ago to a dry sheltered spot on the veranda, is
transformed by the frost. The agave was moved to the
veranda in winter last year but did not thrive when
moved back to the cobbled circle in spring. This was
probably due to the wet summer and autumn that we had.
I have a smaller agave plant already protected against
the damp and so I intend to leave the other agave in
its pot outside all winter. Even if I lose it because
of the damp conditions, the memory of the spiky leaves
encrusted with ice crystals will endure for a long time
9th May 2002
a trip to the gardens of Mount Stewart, Co. Down with The Friends
of Belfast Botanic Gardens on the evening of Thursday the 9th May
were expertly guided around by the head gardener, Alan Power. Although
any time of year is the time to visit the gardens, in early May
the air is full of the scent of Rhododendron lindleyi. Walk around
a corner and you will be hit with the sweet perfume from a bank
of the shrubs fifteen feet away. Heaven.
the Belfast garden, I can see the daily growth on the long stems
of the inflorescences forming on the Stipa gigantea. I was going
to take out these grasses this year and move them to Newcastle as
they didn't produce any inflorescences at all last year, and had
produced only five between them the previous year. I thought that
the soil must be too wet for them in the Belfast garden. This year,
one plant has fourteen inflorescences forming already with more
seeming to appear every day. Never be too hasty in getting rid of
a plant. Always give it another year to prove itself.
first of May is the first day of summer in Ireland. Enjoy the
"These are days you'll remember. Never before or never since,
I promise, will the whole world be warm as this. And as you feel
it, you'll know it's true that you are blessed and lucky. It's true
that you are touched by something that will grow and bloom in you.
These are days you'll remember. When May is rushing over you with
desire to be part of the miracles you see in every hour. You'll
know it's true that you are blessed and lucky. It's true that you
are touched by something that will grow and bloom in you.
These are days.
These are the days you might fill with laughter until you break.
These days you might feel a shaft of light make its way across your
face. And when you do, you'll know how it was meant to be. See the
signs and know their meaning. It's true, you'll know how it was
meant to be. Hear the signs and know they're speaking to you, to
- These Are Days (Natalie Merchant / Rob Buck), from the 10,000
Maniacs album "Our Time In Eden" (1992, Elektra 7559-61385-2)
16th March 2002
remarkably warm day, even though the temperature is only 10 degrees
centigrade. There is hardly a breath of wind. I finally cut down
all the remaining perennial stems and seed heads - the Helianthus
'Lemon Queen' (perennial sunflower), Anenome hupehensis and Anenome
x hybrida cultivars (Japanese anenomes), Soldago, Cephelaria giganteum,
verbascums, Lysmachia, Echinops, Foeniculum vulgare Purpureum (bronze
fennel) and sedums.
also pruned the Buddleja (see "Hints
and the roses - Rosa "Graham Thomas", Rosa "Gertrude
Jekyll" and two rambler type roses that are cuttings that I
took from roses in the Newcastle garden. These in their turn had
grown from cuttings that my parents had taken from the original
roses in their parents gardens in Ardboe and Kilcoo. I don't know
the names of these two roses, but both are pink, single flowering
and were referred to as "cabbage roses" because of their
full flowers. I lifted some of the larger Stipa tenuissima plants
that had self seeded last year between the granite setts in the
cobbled circle and potted them up. Finally, I pollarded the poplar,
cutting back each branch to the main stem.
garden looks very bare with all the top growth removed, and this
reinforces the view that it is best to leave this dead growth in
place for as long as possible throughout the winter. The warmth
of the day has awoken a small tortoiseshell butterfly from hibernation
and it arrives and settles on the bare soil in full sun. Some of
the new growth of perennial foliage has yet to show. The Echinops
'Arctic Glow' is nowhere to be seen yet, although the Echinops 'Blue
Glow' is already five inches high. Surprisingly, some Eschsholzia
californica plants have survived the winter and are already producing
2nd March 2002
is the first day that I've actually spent some hours working in the
garden since November. The day, though overcast, was calm, and hence
there was no excuse not to get my hands dirty. The sight of narcissi
waiting to come into flower helped shake off the lingering lethargic
feeling that winter induces. The verticals of the dead stems and seed
heads of some of the herbaceous perennials, (the verbascums, perennial
sunflowers ( Helianthus 'Lemon Queen'), Thalictrum delavayi 'Hewitt's
Double', Bronze fennel and Giant Scabious), which helped sustain the
garden over the past few months, are still surprisingly upright, despite
the gales of winter.
I am not a great fan of the school that says there must be several
plants in flower in the garden every day of the year, otherwise
the garden is somewhat lacking. I think this philosophy is increasingly
a reflection of a "more, now" culture that demands perfection
in everything at all times. Gardening in a small garden as I do,
and in a naturalistic style, I don't have the space for 'a bloom
a minute' garden. In any case, as with all living things, a garden
must rest and for the most part I am happy to look at spent seed
heads and stems against a background of some evergreen shrubs for
the duration of winter. The dead growth of perennials, moreover,
can look every bit as wonderful as a flowering plant. The branched
stems of the thalictrum in my garden are now so fine and bleached
that they provide a wonderful contrast against the more solid mass
of the sunflowers' dark mahogany stems.
I will leave all these stems and seed heads intact until Saint Patrick's
Day weekend, always my first big weekend of work in the garden.
Then they will be cut back and removed to reveal the new year's
task for Saturday was to remove the first generation of annual weeds
some of which are already quite mature. Weeds such as bitter cress
and one which is a smaller version of the broad-leaved willowherb
are best picked out as early as possible by hand. Leave them for
a few more weeks, and the emerging new growth of perennials will
hide them, ensuring that they will flower and seed and that you
will be picking out scores of fresh seedlings this time next year.
In certain areas of the garden, mostly at the boundaries and under
the hedges, ground elder is also emerging. Although it is not a
major problem in the garden, it is not big enough to grub out yet,
so I will leave it also to Saint Patrick's Day weekend before tackling
combed out the old growth of the Stipa tenuissima. (see "Hints
I removed the old 'thatch' from Geranium 'Johnson's Blue', Geranium
'Kashmir White' and Geranium Sanguineum to reveal the new growth
buds. It is surprising, once this has been done, to see how far
the Geranium 'Johnson's Blue' has spread. The red of the uncovered
growth buds is a very welcome sight, and it is an easy and pleasurable
job to dig up some of the rampant outer spreading growths and pot
them up to give to friends. The 'Kashmir White' does not spread
so prolifically, but then neither does it have such a long flowering
season as 'Johnson's Blue'.
removing this old growth, don't be too particular about taking all
of it away to the compost heap. Leave some on the surface for worms
to pull down, or gently fork it into the topsoil as the first dressing
of the year.