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garden diary
Friday 3rd January 2003 Thursday 9th May 2002 Saturday 16th March 2002 Saturday 2nd March 2002
  Friday 3rd January 2003
Friday 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.

Cherrie 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.

Leucothoe '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.
The 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 with frost.  
  Frost 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.
The seed heads on the tall candelabra-like stem of the Verbena bonariensis also look good smothered in frost  
  Elsewhere 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 real thing.
With 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.

An 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 .

  Thursday 9th May 2002  
  Took 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 2002.

We 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.

In 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.

The first of May is the first day of summer in Ireland. Enjoy the miracles.

"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 you."

- These Are Days (Natalie Merchant / Rob Buck), from the 10,000 Maniacs album "Our Time In Eden" (1992, Elektra 7559-61385-2)

  Saturday 16th March 2002  

A 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.

I also pruned the Buddleja (see "Hints and Tips") 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.

The 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 new leaves.

  Saturday 2nd March 2002  
  This 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 growth.

The first 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 it.

I also combed out the old growth of the Stipa tenuissima. (see "Hints and Tips").

Finally 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'.

When 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.

Copyright A Walsh 2002-2007