Hope Springs

I cannot begin to describe the joy my garden brings medownload. It is just a small, bog standard suburban patch, but I love it with a passion. Last week I spent two full afternoons outdoors, getting my dose of vitamin D, exercising muscles in every part of my body, using my arthritic hands, clearing away the last of the leaves and stealing a march on the weeds. If it weren’t for the garden, apart from bringing my beloved dogs for a quick scoot around the hill, or park, I wouldn’t get a fraction as much fresh air and exercise. The most uplifting bit of gardening is however, observing the seasons and being close to nature. All through my work last week a robin, a wren and a married couple of blackbirds kept me company, searching for worms and insects in the freshly turned soil. Today I did my customary inspection and found, to my delight, that the snowdrops I thought I had lost during the building works are popping up again. The early hellebores are blooming apace, and most gratifyingly, many of the herbaceous perennials are starting to peep their noses above ground and put on new growth.

The only problem with the hellebores if the hundreds and hundreds of seedlings which have started to appear. This always poses a terrible dilemma, a true judgment of Solomon. Which to keep? Will the ones I discard be the best? Will they be doubles? Will they be deepest slatey black? Richest of plums? Or, the holy grail of hellebore enthusiasts, almost pure red? Hellebore seedlings take about three years at least before the flower, so one is in for the long haul. How often have I spent three years or more nursing potted seedlings only to find, at the end, that they are boring old single flowered, pinky meh coloured specimens? I have left them all in situ while I have a think about it.

Lots of early narcissi are in bud. I always silently chuckle when I hear, year in year out, talk of how global warming has made all the daffodils come up early, ditto tulips. What people don’t realise is that these are early varieties, bred to come up early. (Please note that I am not in any way a climate change denier).

  • Most beautiful of all the early flowering plants is the Daphne, already in flower and spreading its glorious, heady scent. ‘Heady scent’ is such a cliché, but in this case there is no other way to describe the heavy perfume from daphnes, or for that matter viburnum farrerii or the Bodnant gardens version. I lost my viburnum during the build and must get a new one. The great thing about the scented viburnums is that they throw out suckers very easily so cadging a new plant is usually no problem at all.
  • Here are few things you can do in the garden on fine days now:
  • Divide clumps of primroses and other primula varieties and spread them about
  • Weed as much as possible
  • Move plants that are in the wrong place
  • If you are evil, like me, spread some slug pellets
  • Clear up the last of the autumn leaves and cut back hardy perennials (leave the old stems on more tender plants as they will protect them from frost)



A Brief History of Blessington Basin


The Blessington Basin was developed as a result of the creation of the Royal Canal. The Royal Canal was built to transfer freight and passenger boats from the River Liffey at Dublin to the River Shannon at Cloondara in County Longford before the railways were built. Work on the main canal route began in 1790 and finished at the Shannon in 1817.  The canal mouth in Dublin reaches the Liffey through a wide sequence of dock and locks at Spencer Dock, with a final sea lock to manage access to the river and sea. In 1789 Dublin Corporation commissioned the Royal Canal Company to build a harbour on Constitution Hill, connected to the main canal at Phibsborough by a spur. The branch line was completed by 1796, the harbour’s location was chosen for its proximity to the markets and the law courts.

Water supply to the city was proving a difficulty to the City Corporation in the latter half of the eighteenth century, especially to the north side of this city which had been recently developed by the Gardiner family.  The Royal Canal Company saw an opportunity to remedy this with the completion of the canals. Between 1807 and 1809 a spur was built to Broadstone and the City Basin at Blessington Street was constructed.  Excavated soil from the basin works was sold to the Grand Canal Company for 5d per cubic yard in order to build up the banks of the Broadstone harbour, and Lord Palmerston purchased a substantial quantity of the spoil to raise the surface of upper Dominick Street. This money off set some of the costs of building the basin. The basin, which has a capacity of 5 million litres of water, was also used to supply water to the two large distilleries of Powers in Thomas Street and Jameson’s at Bow Lane.

In 1810 the basin was completed and a William Ferguson was appointed as basin-keeper at a salary of £1 per week.  The basin was used for recreational purposes from its inception (as were the other two basins at James’s street and Portobello – built 1812). The Blessington basin was less smart than the other two and appears to have had a rowdier clientele. The keeper Ferguson found an ingenious way to supplement his rather meagre salary by opening a sheebeen on the site. The city assembly shut this down in 1815 stating that ‘in future, none of the … basin keepers [are] allowed to sell porter, ale, or spirits at any of the city basins or to permit any person to do so on pain of dismissal’.

It seems that despite this, intrusion by the public was still a problem as in 1828 the walls were raised and finished with round topped coping and shards of glass. Guide books and gazetteers from the 19th century describe James’s street as having a gravel walk and being used for promenading, whereas Blessington basin was ‘encompassed by a terrace and enclosed by a strong close hedge.

There were problems with the cleanliness of the water in the royal canal, in 1835 the corporation complained to the canal company about ‘the practices of painting the bottoms of canal boats with gas tar, and suffering manure from boats to fall into the water., the problem was solved by John Semple, the corporation architects and engineer to the pipe water works. Semple designed a sewer which would bring water directly from the canal to a screw chamber from whence it would be issued into the mains. The sewer was built to Semple’s specifications by James Hickey to provide an adequate temporary supply of water while the reservoir was thoroughly cleaned out.

The basin continued to in use as a reservoir, but with the advent of the Vartry water supply in 1868 it was no longer used for domestic purposes and its primary function was to supply the distilleries.

In 1887 it was decided to convert the basin into a public park under the open spaces act, as it ‘would be of great benefit to the inhabitants of the surrounding district, which comprise a large number of the artisan classes’. The conversion included construction of a public promenade around the water’s edge, surrounded by a hedge for safety, and a small play-area was provided for children near the main entrance. A caretaker was appointed to take charge of the grounds, and a gate-lodge was built to the designer of the city engineer, spencer Harty.

The Blessington street Park opened in 1891. In 1900 it was proposed to bid a band stand at the basin ‘for the performance of music for the education and benefit of the people’, however this plan was abandoned as there was found to be no room for one without filling in part of the basin. A Tudor cottage-style lodge was designed and built by Spencer Harty.

The aqueduct and canal that once linked the site to the Royal canal are gone almost without a trace and what the Neo-Egyptian railway station is now a bus depot and garage. The canal was filled in at around 1927 and Phibsborough Library was built on top of it.

In 1993, after decades of stagnation and neglect, Dublin Corporation’s Parks Department began restoring it as a recreational facility, removing 6000 tons of silt and debris, adding a fountain, enlarging the central island for wildlife and undertaking extensive replanting. The Blessington Basin still obtains its water from the canal above the 8th lock, two miles away, but is now a picturesque walled park of one and a quarter acres, with a paved and landscaped walk around  the basin fenced off by wrought-iron railings, and scattered with sculptures and places to sit.




I have been very remiss about this blog – it was unintentional, but we had builders in and we had to move out. The garden was utterly banjaxed and I hadn’t the heart to write about it. The good news is that gardens and plants are very resilient, and despite the best efforts of the workmen, builder’s sand, concrete, empty cans and milk cartons, custard cream packets and bits of tools, rubble and plastic scattered and buried everywhere, the garden is on its way back. This is not to say it was easy, on the contrary, it has been back-breaking work getting the garden back into shape and I won’t be posting any pics of the back garden until next year, when it looks a bit better, but it looks like a garden again, as opposed to a war zone.


If, like us, you are practically bankrupt after building works, and can’t afford to get in professionals to fix up the garden, here a few things I learnt along the way:


  1. Preparation is key. In the months before the build start planning. I began a year in advance and dug up my precious snowdrops and more special spring bulbs. Remove and pot up any precious plants and anything you wish to keep and pot up. Propagate favourites and have a good think about what you really want to keep growing. It is a good opportunity to have a rethink about what you like and what sort of garden you want to have. Either remove the pots from site altogether (ask friends and family to store them for you if necessary), or put in a spot in the garden, out of the way and cordon it off. Tell you builders in no uncertain terms that they are not to put any machinery or rubble there and to stay well away from this spot.
  2. Instruct your builder and architect – all topsoil removed in excavating for foundations is not to be taken off-site. Ask them to pile it somewhere so you can reuse it later.
  3. If your works necessitate removal of existing slabs or bricks on paths or patios tell the builders to lift them carefully without damaging them and again, store them somewhere on site. Despite their inevitable protests and words to the contrary, they can be used again later.
  4. Hire a skip or skip bag and clear anything you no longer want; get rid of broken garden furniture, old pots etc. so you won’t return and have to face another clear out.
  5. When you move back the garden will be destroyed. Accept this fact, live with it and psychologically the trauma will be easier to bear.
  6. Before you do anything you need to clear the space thoroughly. Hire another skip or skip bag. You will find detritus everywhere, buried in the ground, under trees and shrubs.
  7. Mark out your beds and paths.
  8. The ground will be dreadfully compacted from the heavy machinery and plant used in the build, so you will need to break up the soil again. Use a fork to loosen it, and look out for any spring bulbs – if you don’t damage them they will, amazingly after all they have been through, return to flower another day.
  9. When the beds have been prepared you can spread the topsoil you have saved up.
  10. Relay paths and terracing or patios. We were incredibly lucky as we found a friend who worked tirelessly on the hard landscaping for us. We had quotes of up to €7,000 to relay our plain concrete slabs and bricks. Sean did it for us at a fraction of the price.
  11. Prune any trees or shrubs that have become out of control during the build and shove the prunings on the skip.
  12. Replace damaged walls and fencing – we were terribly unfortunate as storm Doris took down our back wall just as the building was about to start.
  13. Plan your beds carefully. Think about past mistakes and try to avoid them. Only plant things you really like and want. Don’t go for quick fixes.
  14. Your perennials will take time to establish and bulk up in their new beds and many won’t flower this year, so annuals are a godsend at this point. Nasturtiums, Rudbekia and Papavar somniferum were invaluable to me. They made the beds look full and gave great colour. You can also, as I did, beg, steal and borrow plants from gardening friends.


Amazingly, the front garden didn’t look half bad this year, we only moved back in mid-May and by autumn it was looking pretty good, the dahlias and asters as usual were star turns and Crocosmia Lucifer, which I usually curse, played a blinder.

Anyway, there you have it. I’ll keep you posted next year with a monthly update.


Festive Tipples from the Hedgerow


My first experience of homemade wine and spirits was as a student, in the home of the great daffodil enthusiast and champion grower Michael Ward. His daughter and I regularly raided the garage where he stored his stock of homemade booze to bring to parties. It was an eclectic mix; tea sherry, strawberry vodka and sloe gin were firm favourites. We never imagined then that home-brewing would become a hip pursuit and that Mr Ward’s prescient adventurous spirit/fruit pairings would be championed by the likes of food legend Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and foraging guru John Wright. So while, say a decade ago you may have been accused of being an eccentric tight-wad if you presented your friends and family with homemade alcohol for Christmas, today you will be seen as a super on trend.


It is probably too late to make wine in time for Christmas that would be in anyway drinkable, but hard liquor can be prepared now and ready to lubricate any seasonal parties ahead.

The thing about flavoured spirits, or infusions as they are known by us connoisseurs, is that the most unlikely pairings make the most delicious drinks. The most obvious old favourite is sloe gin. Sloes are bitter, hard fruits which generally only appeal to wildlife. But paired with sugar and gin some kind of alchemy takes place and the result is just delicious.


To make an infusion all you need is the fruit or herbs, sugar and a white spirit (buy the cheap own-brand variety), and a kilner jar. Start saving nice glass bottles for decanting and sterilise in boiling water before use. All you then need to do is wash the fruit, add it to a jar with sugar – the more sugar the sweeter, more alcoholic and liqueur-like the end result will be – and shake each day for about a week and then leave in a dark cupboard for 6 weeks or more before decanting.


Of course you don’t have to restrict yourself to foraged goods –  take a few liberties with imported shop-bought fruit and spices where necessary.


By following exactly the same process as for sloe gin, but swapping the spirt and/or the fruit you can make a variety of delicious libations.

Strawberry and raspberry vodka are incredibly good (and you can re-use the fruit for a super boozy Christmas trifle). Gooseberry and elderflower gin is a very sophisticated drink – sharper and very refreshing partnered with soda water. At this time of year elderberries are more readily available and are great mixed with vodka. Use the resulting liquor to make elderberry Martinis – delish! Rosehips and rhubarb work very well too, add some lemon juice and peel for extra zest. Citrus fruits make very good, rich liqueurs, try Grapefruit and ginger gin or cranberry and orange vodka for an unusual flavour.


If you prefer a less sweet, sharper drink then leave out the sugar and try a simple infusion of herbs or fruits: You can make your own bitters or digestif by adding fronds of fennel, stems of common Alexanders, dandelions, nettle leaves and star anise for extra punch to gin or vodka. Create your own limoncello or ‘limecello’ by simply adding lemons or limes to vodka – include the peel. Leave the fruit to soak for as long as possible, at least six weeks and strain before decanting. For a more homespun, foraged version, lemon balm or lemon verbena are equally delicious, add some ginger to add a bit of oomph to the cocktail. Serve in a long glass with lots of ice and soda water and garnish with lemon and stem ginger.


Add spicy seeds of alexanders (found on any piece of scrub land or hedgerow right now) to white rum and some seasonal spices such as cinnamon, star anise, cloves, allspice, and orange peel for a heady Christmas drink and welcome alternative to awful, dusty mulled wine. John White has a delicious recipe for Rose petal vodka which takes only 24 hours to make. He suggests that Rosa rugosa petals make the most spectacular drink as it is so aromatic and has such a lovely, deep colour. You could however, use any good, strongly scented rose with a good colour.  Simply pick lots of petals, soak them overnight in vodka and the next day strain the liquid. The delicate scent and rose flavour will have infused the spirit while the colour will have leached into the alcohol.


Whiskey, brandy and dark rum have more complex flavours and need more thought.

Chestnut works best with rum and the resulting liqueur is great served with ginger ale. Blackberry whiskey is also a good combo.


All of the above are delicious on their own as a liqueur, or diluted with sparkling water to make a refreshing, less alcoholic drink. Alternatively, you can go all out and make delicious champagne cocktails with them – but do proceed with caution if you are on Christmas lunch duty.

Big Ideas – Small Garden


I love gardens, I love plants, garden design and garden history – in moments of reverie, when my self-aggrandisement knows no limits, I imagine myself in my ideal garden – a sort of Gravetye Manor crossed with Munstead Wood (homes to William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll respectively), with a house designed by Edwin Lutyens, or perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright – acres of magnificently planted borders are bursting with blowsy herbaceous perennials, old English roses and choice flowering shrubs, yew hedges and clipped hornbeam allées break this Eden into compartments and I wander round, surveying all, dispensing instructions to my trusty old gardener, wearing a vast straw hat, carrying an old-fashioned trug and waving a secateurs. I am generally abruptly woken from this pleasantry by the sound of sliothar hitting the roof of the kitchen, having been lobbed over the wall by some wannabe all-Ireland hurler practising on the GAA pitch behind. What I have, in fact, is a very modest, small garden attached to a 1930s ex-corporation house, which in my more fanciful moments I think of as a late Arts & Crafts artisan dwelling.


Perhaps as some kind of divine punishment for my hubris, my existing tiny garden has been comprehensively destroyed. I mean genuinely eviscerated, by building works. I am now faced with the exhausting prospect of starting again from scratch. It will be a task made even more monumental by compaction of the soil by heavy duty equipment and amount of rubbish the builders have left behind. There are lumps of concrete, bits of shattered glass and general rubble. Added to this, I expect I shall be excavating fossilized custard creams, Red Bull cans and empty milk cartons for many years to come.


Once I have finally got the soil situation sorted (I shall add tonnes of well-rotted manure), I plan to have the biggest borders I possibly can. One common mistake made in small gardens is making mean little borders and filling them with dwarf plants – this looks dreadful, like one of those awful little miniature villages popular at resorts in the 1970s. Another tip is to keep the beds rectangular – straight lines work far better in a small space, I don’t want it to look too twee.  I will then view as many open gardens as I can, June Blake’s is first on my list, to steal – sorry I mean take inspiration from – her ideas. It is always a good idea to keep a pen and notebook in your bag always (and a secateurs and possibly a trowel, so when people idly promise to give you a cutting, you can whip them out and take it there and then).  I shall prune all my small trees into standards so I can fit loads of plants underneath and I shall spend every last cent I have at Bloom on the Mount Venus and Kilmurry stands. I look forward to dressing up in my best Margot Ledbetter-style kaftan, large glass of gin in hand and surveying my newly reborn demesne like lady bountiful – in a small garden it pays to think big!

Foxgloves Forever


One of my favourite all round plants is the foxglove. Many regard the common or garden Digitalis purpurea as a weed and a bit of a pest, which I find bewildering. These spires of nodding bells in pink, purple or white grow to over a metre tall, seem to grow in any conditions – damp, dry shade or full sun and will thrive in the poorest of soils. The add colour, height and depth to the garden and are terrific fillers for early summer when grown in spots where asters and other late-summer and autumn plates will take the baton when they have finished. They seed freely, some think too freely, but the seedlings are easily identifiable, easy to remove so can be moved, or potted on for the following season. Technically they are biennials, growing a rich rosette of evergreen leaves in the first year and flowering in the second, but some flower in their first year and others will flower again. If you want to grow only the white versions, check the underside of the leaves, if they have any pinkish colouring they will grow pink or purple, pure green leaves indicate a white plant. There are fancier versions of foxgloves, but inevitably they are trickier and fussier, and only a few are as jolly and full of summer as the wild version. The most attractive of these, to my mind are the ‘interspecific hybrids’ – in other words they don’t fit into any particular category, generally having hybridised themselves from mixing with purpurea. Some of these are beautifully spotted – white with deepest purple markings or polka dots of pinks and apricots. Another favourite is Digitalis grandiflora, a plant with large, yellow open bells of flowers.


I am adding a picture of a digitalis seedling, so you will recognise it in your garden. If you grow Phlomis russelliana, the seedlings look very similar, but the Phlomis is rough to the touch, whereas foxgloves are soft and a bit fuzzy.


Black Plants


When horticultural types talk of ‘black plants’ they don’t really mean actual, pitch black flowers and foliage; rather they mean plants which have either flowers, or foliage in shades ranging from almost black, smokey plum, aubergine and purple to the deepest port reds and browns. They also include plants with dusky variegations in foliage.

Dark plants were very fashionable in the late nineties, when they were considered very choice and no chic garden was complete without chocolate cosmos or Actaea simplex ‘hillside black beauty’. Once these plants became omnipresent and the market reached saturation point, with supermarkets selling dark-leaved dahlias the gloss began to wear off.

Helen Dillon says she’s over dark leaved plants, noting that they make no more than black holes in the border. Normally I agree with and slavishly lap up the estimable Mrs Dillon’s every word, but in this case I will defiantly defend these lovely and rare creatures.

Black plants look great in various combinations. If you want a truly hot and exotic looking border mix plants with black flowers and foliage with reds, fiery oranges and yellows. For example deep, claret sweet Williams Dianthus barbatus and bright red poppies look wonderful and dramatic together. The dark and red colour combination is seen to perfection in a some single plants like the ever reliable dahlia,  Bishop of Llanduff. This easy to propagate plant has inky dark foliage and glorious bright red flowers.

Dark foliage plants can also be used in cooler colour schemes.  Sambucus nigra- the more refined, black flowered version of the common elderflower look fantastic as a backdrop to smokey plums and  pale pinks like Papavar ‘Patty’s Plum’ or creamy buffs and whites.

For those who become obsessed with black plants, the Holy Grail is the almost pure black flower – they are never truly jet black but some come jolly close. Helleborephiles like me long to own the darkest of slate coloured oriental hybrids. I have waited for three or four years for a dozen plants to grow from seed and almost cried with frustration when 90% turn out to be a ‘meh’ wishy washy pink. It is the elusiveness of the dark flower is what makes it so desirable. Similarly if you want to grow the black opium poppy Papavar somniferum you will need to grow it from packets each year and not allow it to set seed in the garden, otherwise the following summer you will have thousands of poppies; one or two may be black, but the rest will be a mix of colours and some will be the dreadful, shaggy double flowered variety that look like frilly pink knickers. The same goes for any other self seeders such as Aquilegia vulgaris ‘dark columbine’ – great dark smokey shades the first year, the next a mixed bag of common blues and wishy washy pinks.

You can go for tonal arrangements using various shades of plum or go for a striking contrast. Acid green and glaucous foliage makes a superb partner for dark flowers and foliage.

Remember that gardens change continually with the seasons so you can do successional schemes. For example cardoons and artichokes will look wonderful with black tulips and black aquilegias in late spring. As summer goes on tall spires of dark aubergine coloured lupin varieties and irises can take over the and in autumn the dark Sedum telephium ‘purple emperor’ and dahlias will take centre stage.

If you don’t fancy using using dark-leaved plants in the border, they can look great in containers and window boxes. Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ or black Mondo grass is almost a true black. It is a tiny strap leaved plant and can be swamped in the border so is perfect for planting in pots. It makes a great planting partner for all manner of plants and summer bedding. Aonium ‘zwartkop’ is a tender succulent grown for its foliage. It is best planted on its own in a nice terracotta pot because it doesn’t like much water and it needs full sun to turn satisfyingly dark. Bring it indoors in winter or during cold weather.

I predict a return to fashion for these dark beauties – as in fashion, trends have a habit of returning every decade or so. Below are some of my favourite and easy to grow black plants.

Black Plants

  • Ajuga ‘Black Scallop’ – wonderful scalloped black foliage, good groundcover and at edge of borders.
  • Alcea rosea ‘Black Beauty’ – a gorgeous old fashioned hollyhock, up to 1.5m tall, but prone to rust like all hollyhocks.
  • Angelica sylvestris ‘Ebony’ – this huge umbellifer is a real stand-out plant, dark brown architectural foliage and huge flat headed umbels of smokey purple flowers.
  • Aquilegia ‘Black Barlow’ – a lovely dark double-flowered aquilegia – will not come true from seed.
  • Atriplex hortensia ‘Rubra’ – mountain spinach, really more of a very dark rusty plum colour, this is a hardy annual, will self-seed, grows to about 1m and is edible. A great filler for a later summer border.
  • Cornflower ‘Black Ball’ – dark, deep plum version of the common cornflower.
    Dahlia ‘fascination’ – I love this dahlia, it is short – about 30cm but has dark, dark leaves and lovely bright purple flowers.
  • Cosmos astrosanguinea ‘Chocamocha – delicious chocolate scented dark brown cosmos. Can be difficult to keep from year to year.
  • Fritillaria persica – spires of velvety black bells in springtime
  • Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’ – delicate early flowering perennial geranium with dark flowers and black splotches on the leaves. Can run riot so keep an eye on it.
  • Hemerocallis ‘Black Prince’ – delicious dark day lily.
  • Heuchera ‘Blackberry Jam’ – lovely dark coloured low growing plant, great for the edge of borders and in pots.
  • Ligularia osiris ‘Cafe Noir’ – great black foliage plant with bright yellow daisy-like flowers.
  • Nasturtium ‘Black Velvet’ – a lovely deep, rich velvety red version of the common orange nasturtium.
  • Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ – small compact plant with black strap shaped leaves, has mauvey coloured flowers but really grown for foliage.
  • Rodgersia pinnata ‘Chocolate Wings’ – satisfyingly dark version of the big leaved foliage plant.
  • Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ – dark leaved version of common elder, lovely lacy foliage.
  • Scabious ‘Chile Black’ – dark pincushion flowered version of common scabious.
  • Tulip ‘Queen of the Night’ – the best and tallest of the black tulips.
  • Viola ‘Roscastle Black’ – a dainty little pansy that is good in pots.



A Spring DIY Project: Make a Pergola


Who doesn’t love the idea of a long narrow table, out of doors, gingham tablecloth, carafes of wine, delicious food and friends and family under a curtain of roses and flowering vines? Ok it is a cliché and repeated endlessly in films, especially those with a mafia theme, but really you can’t go far wrong with a pergola. They date back to the ancient Romans (who probably copied them from the Greeks, who in turn got the idea from the Persians). Pergolas fulfill a number of roles; theyf91d4aad8ed082ffdff61fb72bcb25a6 are really decorative, add a really nice vertical element to a garden, they provide support for climbing plants and make a great spot to put a table under!

You can make a pergola as big or small as you like; it can be more like an arch, or it can be used to link one part of the garden to another, or to create an outdoor room. Some people grow them purely to show off a few particularly good roses or clematis.

It is really quite easy to make a pergola, but very important to do the job properly and make it sturdy. There is nothing worse than seeing a windswept and bockety looking bodge job listing to one side after the first puff of wind. You also don’t want to be sued when a litigious acquaintance who has a crossbeam land on their head at your Italian-style al fresco lunch party.

A DIY job will be hard work but deeply satisfying. You can do it over a couple of weekends or a bank holiday. It will only take two half days of work, the rest of the time is to allow the concrete you set your posts in to set (or go off   as we say in builder’s parlance).

How to do it:

Decide how big you want your pergola to be and choose your material. If you want to use brick uprights, which look great, use a professional, unless you happen to be super handy and good at bricklaying. Brick uprights make a much sturdier and long lasting pergola but they cost more.

If doing it yourself use pressure treated softwood – if it is not treated it will rot quickly – or a hardwood.

You will need:

  • For the uprights – pairs of wooden posts, 85mm x 85mm x 3m (3.3in x 3.3in x 9.8ft) – you will need a post about every 1.5m (6ft) to make the pergola sturdy.
  • As many wooden cross members (for the roof or top) as you like, 33mm x 33mm x 1.8m (1.3in x 1.3in x 5.9ft)
  • Wooden beams to attach the crossbeams to 45mm x 95mm x 3m (1.7in x 3.7in x 9.8ft)
  • Bolts to support the frame
  • Stainless steel screws, countersunk
  • Sand and cement or concrete mix
  • A good electric screwdriver
  • An electric drill
  • A spirit level
  • Measuring tape
  • A plumb line (or piece of long string if stuck)
  • A reasonably competent friend or family member to act as builder’s mate


  • Choose as level a piece of ground as you can. If you are putting your pergola on a patio it will probably be level already which makes the job easier. You will have to lift up slabs where the uprights are to go.
  • Using your mate, measure carefully where the uprights are to go and mark them out. Make sure they are arranged so they’re square with each another. The posts should also be far enough apart to allow a couple of people to walk side by side through the pergola when it is heavy with foliage and flowers and even wider if you want to fit a table underneath.
  • Dig holes for all posts; these should be 30cm x 30cm (1ft x 1ft) wide and 60cm (2ft) deep.
  • Prop a post upright in one of the holes, and then do the same for its neighbour.
  • Put a cross member on top of these two posts, then place a spirit level on top to check they’re level; if they’re not, infill or backfill the holes as necessary until they are.
  • Repeat this with the remaining uprights until all are level.
  • Make a good stiff mix of concrete, using just enough water to bind the ingredients together but not make it sloppy. Have your mate hold the post steady as the concrete is poured into the hole.
  • Compact the mixture around the post with a piece of wood, taking care not to move the post from its position.
  • Make sure that the post is level using a plumb line. Repeat these procedures with the remaining posts.
  • Leave the pillars propped in position so they don’t slide or list – use bricks or garden chairs or batons.
  • If you have got the uprights in straight and they are solid you have done all the hard work. The rest of the job is pretty straightforward.
  • Join all the posts at the sides with your cross members and bolt them into position – leave 30cm (1ft) or so hanging proud either side.
  • To help you position the cross beams across the roof of the pergola and screw into position.
  • If you want you can paint the pergola or stain it. You can also put trellis along the sides if you want it to be more closed. Otherwise just fix wires or plant supports where you need them.

When planting your pergola remember to dig your holes a good 30cm or 1ft away from the concrete around the upright posts and to dig in some compost. Don’t worry if it looks a bit odd don’t worry, you can train the plant up the pergola posts using wires or bamboos.

Plants to suitable to grow over a pergola:

Don’t be tempted to plant a solanum of any kind on your pergola, they are tempting as they grow so quickly, but are far too vigorous and unruly and you will deeply regret it in two years at most.

Actinidia deliciosa ‘Hayward’

Clematis armandii

Clematis viticella

Lonicera japonica ‘Halliana’

Rosa ‘Albertine’

Rosa ‘perle d’azur’

Passiflora caerulea

Trachelospermum jasminoides

Vitis coignetiae vinifera ‘Purpurea’

Winter Colour in the Garden

January and February are the most challenging months in the garden and are the real test of a good gardener. Really, with a bit of money thrown at it, anyone’s garden can have a lively show in summer, but winter is where forward thinking and a little thought ensure that the winter garden need not be bereft of colour and interest. First published in 1957, Graham Stuart Thomas’s Colour in the Winter Garden is a classic of garden literature and still the greatest authority on creating year round interest in the garden and if you find a copy in your local library I urge you to borrow it. The winter garden is not flash or brash, rather it is subtle, relying on foliage, bark and gentle modest flowers to bring it to life. Here are some lists of plants to get you started


Bergenia purpurascens: The large, waxy leaves of this great ground-cover plant turn deeper and deeper red the colder it gets.

Elaeagnus pungens ‘Dicksonii’: This evergreen shrub has lovely elliptical, shiny dark green leaves edged in yellow. Great for flower arrangements for the house.

Hedera canariensis ‘Gloire de Marengo’: really good ivy, with ripples of dark green and silver and edged with white.

Iris Foetidissima ‘Variegata’: the dreariest, stinkiest of plants has its Cinderella moment now, it has green and white variegated, strap shaped leaves and beautiful seed pods bursting with red fruits.

Arum italicum ‘Pictum’: lovely, crinkly spotted leaves make this arum a must for the winter garden, looks great with hellebores and snowdrops.

Mahonia ‘Heterophylla’: long spindly serrated leaves in russet brown – and the bonus of yellow flower spikes later on.


For berries try holly,  Pyracantha, Skimmia japonica and any of the Cotoneasters.



Winter wouldn’t be complete without snowdrops, there are lots of varieties, singles, doubles, large and small flowered, from the thick grey leaved Elwesii species, to the pretty small naturalised Nivalis, all are hardy and with time and lots of lovely hummus will bulk up into significant clumps in a few years. Delicate, tiny little Cyclamen coum are perfect partners for snowdrops.


Flowering shrubs:

Most winter flowering shrubs have the most delicious scent too, the best being Viburnum x bodnantense and Daphne mezereum and Skimmia.


Bark and stems:

Don’t forget that bare branches and lovely barks come into their own now. All the dogwoods are stunning right now, from bright red to yellow the Cornus stems will lift any garden.

Acers are famous for their beautiful bark, particular good examples are davidii, laxiflorum and griseum. Also good are silver birch, the brightest whites are Betula albo-sinensis, Betula nigra and Betula pendula

Jobs for winter

January and February are usually the coldest months and the time to plan ahead for summer and autumn.

  • Soggy, bald lawns should be prodded with a fork and a bit of sand added to improve drainage
  • Cut back dead foliage that is looking droopy
  • Clear dead leaves and debris
  • Check stored dahlia tubers for mould or drying out. If they look very shrivelled you can plump them out again by plunging in water
  • Repot or top dress container plants
  • Order seeds and summer bulbs
  • Sow summer bedding under glass

Invasive Species



Himalayan Balsam


One of the greatest threats to our native ecosystem and domestic gardens is the arrival of pervasive and invasive species. Anyone who has taken a walk along local riverbanks, which are frequently clothed in Himalayan balsam, can see how these can become a real pest.  Himalayan balsam, or Impatiens gladulifera, is a relation of the popular summer bedding plant, busy lizzie. This has colonised huge tracts of river banks, suffocating native plants which our native wildlife depends on for food and nesting. The summertime is when it is most difficult to get in amongst garden plants to weed and sneaky species can get a foothold, so autumn, when you are clearing and cutting back is a good time to look for evidence of unwanted species and dig them out before they become a problem. There are a three categories of invasive plants; the first are the common weeds we all know and battle against year in year out like dandelion, daisy and buttercups. The second category are garden plants like Japanese anemones and Echium that have self-seeded to such an extent that they have become a nuisance, but cause no real damage.  The third category are species which were introduced by horticulturalists as curiosities but quickly naturalized and spread throughout the countryside.  The latter category causes real ecological and structural damage by escaping from our gardens and into the countryside beyond. A classic example of such a pest is Horsetail or Equisetum arvense. This plant has creeping rhizomes which can go down 2m below the surface, making them almost impossible to eradicate by digging. Even when using a pesticide persistent applications are necessary, you may need to call in specialist help. Japanese Knotweed, or Himalayan Balsam, was introduced from Japan in the nineteenth century and since its introduction it has spread nationwide. It can destroy the foundations of houses as it can grow through concrete and tarmac. It also blocks wildlife corridors and clogs up watercourses.

Removal and control of invasive species causes millions of euro a year. Other pests include Bamboos – Philostachys species which form impenetrable thickets, block out native plants and spreads rapidly, again popping up through hard surfaces with ease.



Japanese knotweed

Obviously the best way to fight invasive species is not to plant them in the first place so here are some tips to keep these thugs out:

  • Check a plants habit before you buy it and see if there is a non-invasive alternative.
  • If you have been walking along river banks or areas where invasive non-native species have colonized always wash the soles of your shoes thoroughly before wearing them in your garden. Seeds are commonly brought in on the soles of boots or on animal’s coats.
  • Never add any part of an invasive plant to the compost heap.
  • Invasive aquatic plants have caused considerable problems to our waterways and it is important to stop their spread. Avoid swapping cuttings or fragments from friend’s ponds. Otherwise you may end up with an invasive species in your pond.
  • Wash the roots of plants you buy too – I have a dreadful duck weed problem in my pond which came in on a plant bought from a very reputable garden centre.
  • Learn to recognise seedlings of invasive plants. Dig out seedlings as soon as you see them in spring and before they establish.
  • When weeding out mature plants make sure to remove all of the roots. Plants with tap roots like dandelion species will generate from every little bit of root left in the soil.
  • Rhizomatous weeds such as couch grass, bindweed and ground elder respond well to glyphosate if treated twice over a two-week period. It is very important to avoid drift so apply on a very still day. To treat bindweed, spray the weed killer onto rubber gloves and run your hands along the plant.
  • To eradicate ivy on trees and old walls cut it back to the ground and dig out the woody stump.