Bring on the Changes

As in all walks of life it is possible to become stuck in a dreary rut in the garden. For the past couple of years I have been coasting along, a bit smug, a lot lazy, letting the garden just tick over. The death of a few key plants to a mystery disease has given me a metaphorical boot up rear end and forced me to re-think my, rather grandly named, long border. In late spring it depended on a great showing of huge, lush oriental poppies which no longer thrive. The bed has become heavy with self-seeded/-spreading day lilies, Pachyphragma , Bergenia purpurascens and perennial geranium, disrupting its balance and composition. This in turn has made me turn a critical eye over the whole sorry garden and it is time to make some changes, some attitudinal and some physical. First on the list is the realisation that less can be more; I suffer from a particular weakness common among amateur gardeners – pathetic gratitude. This manifests itself in an inability to get rid of any plant which thrives, seeds itself and does well in the garden –  even if I loathe it, or is in the wrong position. This is something I recommend any new gardener to overcome immediately. As a rule of thumb if it is easy to grow and self-propagates in abundance it is probably nothing special (though of course there are many notable exceptions). However, if the plant is tricky, precious, needs continual faffing and staking and behaves like an all-round primadonna it is generally  very desirable. This explains why slugs adore delphiniums and the nicest of lupins but won’t touch gurriers like Campanula glomerata – or dandelions. So it’s goodbye Acanthus, farewell Agapanthus and death to Anemone japonica  (and that’s just the As). I have spent a back-breaking few days pulling out plants which have over spread or which I have become fed up with (most have been re-homed with friends) and I now have lots of lovely big spaces to fill anew. I have, in the past, been a shocking fashion victim and the evidence is everywhere, most notably in a preponderance of dark leaved plants (in vogue 20 years ago) has made my long border look dreary in high summer and it needs lifting. I have decided to take out most of these but leave a few (Persicaria purpurea, dahlias) and add a bit of punch with the acid yellows and greens of euphorbia and golden tansy. Inspired by June Blake’s magical polychromatic garden I think I will also be less restrictive colourwise and throw a few more into the mix. I love this time of year, my head is buzzing with plans and ideas and it is wonderful to back outdoors and in the garden again. How lucky we are to live this far north when we garden until half past ten or eleven at night!


Jobs for the Months of May and June

  • Start hardening off plants kept under glass by taking out during the warm days and preparing them for planting out at the end of May.
  • Keep an eye out for pests and disease on plants and deal with them now before they get out of hand
  • Re seed bald patches of lawns

Gardening Prozac

A few years ago, at just this time of the year I was bang in the middle of a hormonal midlife tizz and I was dwelling on how great gardening is for the mind. Here is what I wrote about gardening:

Today the sun finally deigned to shine and I spent a fantastic few hours in the garden, followed by a couple of great pals dropping by  for tea and making all the right complimentary noises about my hard work. I am sitting here enjoying feeling sunburnt and stiff and happier than I have felt for a while. There are times when I am truly thankful that I discovered gardening. It has carried me through some of my darkest hours. Times when I have been so flattened and made leaden by chronic depression that I couldn’t bear to get out of bed I have found solace in garden books, seed catalogues and making endless lists of things to do in the garden. When I can’t bear to see or talk to anyone, or felt overwhelmed by despair a day’s digging, planning and moving plants about has given me a sense of purpose.  Getting outdoors, walking the dog, swimming and gardening or in Marion Keyes case, baking cakes) really is, if not a cure, a great way to, if not silence, but distract the buzzing, violent demons who colonise the mind with morose and self-loathing thoughts . Sometimes just when you think you are on top of things and happy as a lark, some crushing blow – a vile snub or a once valued friendship turned sour will send you back into the doldrums, but rather than take to the bed try messing  about with compost, cutting and edging the grass, re-potting and sweeping, feeling the sun on your back and losing yourself in hard physical labour. There is something about hard and repetitive work out of doors that is incredibly soothing.  I suppose there is a scientific and rational basis for why gardening makes one feel at peace – many northern Europeans suffer from vitamin D deficiency, and even when out in low light levels we are absorbing more than those who are house or desk bound and vitamin D deficiency is associated with depression and anxiety. Exercise is also good for the mind and body and produces endorphins which boost feelings of well-being and self-esteem as well as having an analgesic effect. The sense of achievement is particularly rewarding;  a tidy lawn, a weed-free border, well propped and staked plants or a row of neatly top-dressed pots seems to bring order to an untidy mind and messy thoughts are tucked away. Another reason to get outside and garden is that it is cheap, much cheaper than a shrink. Start hanging around Church of Ireland garden fetes and local plant sales and you will pick up plants for next to nothing. Save seed and beg cuttings or divisions from friends, do your own landscaping and use cheap recycled materials and be creative.  I promise you it works, no matter how feeble you patch, even if it’s just a balcony, get out there and start digging.

Going Wild

‘…. The hedgehog
Shares its secret with no one.
We say, Hedgehog, come out
Of yourself and we will love you…’

Hedgehog by Paul Muldoon

I suppose yet another sign that I am getting is old that I am continually harping on how when I was a child our house was like animal hospital. There never seemed to be a day when there wasn’t a cardboard box in the laundry room housing a small hedgehog, or a shoebox beside the Aga where a fledgling, injured by one of the cats was being nursed back to recovery. On one occasion at least there were kittens actually in the Aga – they had been rescued after falling into the loo when their fabled curiousity had alomost killed them. These days all I ever see are the much maligned magpies.   I have in the past, frequently in fact, moaned about wildlife in the garden (fox poo, snails, vine weevils etc.) I am actually a huge fan of our furry, feathered, spikey and winged friends.  How long is it since you last saw a red squirrel or a sweet hedgehog (apart from roadkill)? The familiar creatures of my childhood are almost or completely extinct in gardens today.  Aside from the ecological tragedy of this situation, it is a great loss the gardener. Friendly fauna are a huge ally in the garden and will, with luck, prey on the annoying pests like the slimy gastropods and molluscs. Unfortunately the ecological balance has been so skewed that the creatures at the top of the garden food chain never seem to achieve the critical mass necessary to exterminate my bitter foes.  I blame the neighbours for this:  in my neck of the woods they have adopted a scorched earth policy towards gardens – it is all concrete and hideous cobble lock round here – as little grass and bare soil as possible seems to be the look du jour. This means that I – and my neighbours Marie and Gillian up the road are fighting a tough, lone battle on behalf of the wildlife on our patch.  Bees and other insects are pollinators, they flit from plant to plant and we have them to thank for the interesting hybrid seedlings we find in the garden from year to year.  I have been on a mission to increase the bird population in my garden, there is nothing more lovely than sitting back on a summer’s evening and listening to bird song, and by that I mean the sweet chirrups of blackbirds, tits, thrushes and the like, not the incessant cackles and squawks of the magpies and other crows which thrive on urban living. It makes me so sad to think that my daughter’s generation have no experience at all of feeding hedgehog families, nursing fledglings who have fallen from their nests back to health and rescuing fieldmice.  If you are keen on reclaiming some nature and increasing bird and native fauna levels here are some things you can do to make your garden a sympathetic environment for wildlife:

  • Create access for wildlife, avoid making your house a fortress  – wooden fences slotted into concrete columns don’t leave any room for wildlife to walk in and out (and those big gates mean nobody can see what the burglars are up to once they vault the wall).
  • Grow hedges
  • Make a hole in the bottom of fences of gates so hedgehogs and other small mammals can gain access.
  • Never give hedgehogs bread or milk – they are lactose intolerant!
  • Only use wildlife friendly slug controls, many pellets are toxic to hedgehogs
  • Slug pellets are a common cause of hedgehog fatality as the hedgehogs feed on the slugs with the pellets inside them. There are lots of methods of organic pest control out there that don’t
  • try biological control to kill off slugs, vine weevils and other pests using slug-killing nematodes
  • Don’t be overly fussy about being neat and tidy
  • Have a log pile – insects adore crumbling bark and rotting wood and hedgehogs love insects. So when you are pruning or cutting down trees create a nice little pile in an out of the way corner as a hedgehog hotel.
  • Keep a weedy – sorry wildflower – corner where the grass grows long
  • Allow ivy to colonise an area of wall, fence or old tree – birds adore the shelter provided by it.
  • Leave windfall fruit on the ground
  • Leave out apples cut in half for the birds to munch on
  • Allow herbaceous perennials with good seed heads to remain until eaten
  • Have a pond – no matter how small it is, it will draw in wildlife and provide food and water for birds but make sure it has sloping sides so hedgehogs don’t drown!
  • plant blooms to attract butterflies and insects such as Buddleia davidii, Lavender, Lilac,
  • Achillea, Michaelmas daisies, valerian and Eupatorium or Joe Pye weed.
  • Buy a bird bath
  • Plant trees and shrubs which are attractive to birds like such Cotoneasters and Pyracantha (a particular favourite of blackbirds), honeysuckle, holly, Sorbus and any trees which have berries and fruit in autumn.


It is high time we stopped demonising the Magpie. To quote the expert birdloving natural history writer and ornitologist duo Jonathan Elphick and Lars Sevensson, Magpies ‘have earned the wrath of may lovers of garden birds by teir habit of tearing into a smaller birds nest to devour the eggs or hepless nestlings within, but thorough research has proved that this habit, owever upsetting to us when “our” birds are plundered, has no large-scale or long-term effect on songbird populations. For most of the year, they eat mainly insects and other invertebrates, fruit and seeds.’  Magpies are omnipresent because they are wily, intelligent birds. We have created a dreary, endless concrete suburbia which is no habitat for small songbirds but which magpies, through intelligence have managed to negotiate – eating scraps from bins and petfood left in gardens. They mate for life too and live in monogamous harmony in thir vast, often two-storey nests.