The Green Green Grass … Making and Maintaing a Lawn

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Lawns can be utterly beautiful, a green sward, freshly mown looks wonderful, and makes a lovely simple backdrop to flowerbeds. In an ideal world, I would have a garden of about an acre and a half. It would have lots of different areas; wet, dry, shady and sunny, a small piece of woodland and a meadow.  I would step out of my french windows, from my library and have a stone terrace overlooking a perfect lawn. In this dreamy universe I would have a lot of money and could afford to pay someone for maintenance. As it happens I have a tiny little plot and am madly greedy for plants so space is at a premium and the plants take pride of place. While my daughter was young we had a patch, which if one was feeling particularly generous, could be termed a lawn. It was small, weedy, soggy in parts and bald in others. I wanted to maintain a bit of grass as it makes a lovely play space for children. We camped out in summer (torture, it really doesn’t get properly dark until midnight this far north, especially if there is a full moon), we had a paddling pool, my daughter put up obstacles for the dogs to do showjumping and my little patch of green could justify its existence. Now my girl is grown up, the grass seemed surplus to requirements. It was a fag to mow – sometimes twice weekly in a warm and damp Irish summer (no wonder our beef is famous, our climate is perfect for grass), after mowing it had to be edged by hand and it was so small it hardly seemed worth the effort. Last year we made a decision to get rid of the grass altogether and replace with a jumble of reclaimed bricks and slabs. I cannot tell you how much this has transformed the garden and my enjoyment of it. I have far more time to footle around with plants. I don’t have to weed and reseed every spring, no more mowing and labour and I have a nice spot for my table and chairs and loads of room for yet more plants in containers.

 

For those of you with space, or who like a good lawn, rather than a daisy and dandelion and moss filled slab of greenery, now is the time to take control so you will have something decent by mid-summer.  Some of you (mostly men), may even hanker after the perfect lawn, a bowling green swathe of grass, if so you will have to put a lot of extra work in.  I think it is almost impossible to get rid of moss in the Irish climate unless you are prepared, as someone I know, to kill off last season’s grass with a herbicide, and start again from scratch each year. Personally, I think this is excessive, if not verging on clinically insane.

 

Here are your options:

 

If you are starting from scratch and laying a new lawn you choices are to sow grass seed yourself (very cheap, very easy and surprisingly quick in summer) or, if you are rich and/or lazy, you can buy turves which come in rolls like carpet. The ground where the lawn is to be will have to be prepared properly however you will need to have it levelled, cleared of big stone and roots, very well weeded and then spread with a nice mix of sandy loam and fertilizer. I suspect that if you are flash enough to buy the grass this way that you can afford to pay someone to do the tedious labour for you.Do not under any circumstances take a rotovator to an old weedy patch. The blades will break up roots of weeds like dandelion and dock and make lots of baby little root cuttings to spread all over the place and you will be in a far worse state than when you started – the weeds will all pop up though your fancy new lawn.

 

A useful, but time consuming way to rid the ground of perennial weeds before laying a lawn is to week out as much as you can by hand, then cover the ground with plastic sheeting for at least year. When you take off the sheeting you will have to wait a couple of weeks and weed yet again, or if not feeling very green spray with glyphosate, and then prepare the ground.

 

Once you have the patch ready and the surface of the ground looks smooth, level and covered in a nice fine tilth you can sow your seeds or, have your manservant lay the turf for you.  When choosing your variety of grass consider what the lawn will be used for. Grass comes in various qualities, tough rye grass is suitable if you have children, footballers or pets and the lawn is in constant use. There are finer grades suitable for lawns which are more decorative and extra fancy fine grass for the bowling green effect.

 

If you just want to fix up an existing lawn there are lots of things you can do to improve its appearance , starting now:

 

if the ground is dry enough, mow the grass with the lawnmower blade at a high setting; then go over it, poking holes in the soil with a fork or for the very serious, buy one of those tools designed especially for the job. This aerates the soil and improves drainage.

 

Pull as many weeds as you can. To remove’ moss, use a grass fork to drag out as much of it as possible.

 

Reseed bald patches.

 

If you think it all sounds too much like hard work and don’t like using herbicides, an application of lawn sand, available in any garden centre or supermarket will both weed and feed the lawn, but it is good idea to hand-weed out the real hard core thugs such as dandelion and thistle first. Spraying individual weeds with a general all-purpose herbicide is not a good idea, as any drift will kill surrounding grass. The lawn sand, which should kill off any remaining weeds, should not be used on grass less than about six months old.

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Grow Plants for Cutting – Make Plans Now

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Nothing lifts a room as much as fresh flowers and vegeta­tion; it automatically looks brighter and better dressed. A few well-chosen cut flowers can somehow pull a scheme together. This yea,r you should try and create a good cutting garden to provide year-round foliage and flowers which are ideally suited for indoor displays. People have been growing flowers for the house since the middle ages, either dedicating large gardens solely for cutting, or incorporating them into their overall garden scheme. These days people tend to have smaller gardens and very few of us have enough space to annexe a whole section specifically for cut flowers but should be able to grow them alongside our other plants, to provide colour and interest both indoors and outdoors all year round.

When growing plants for cutting, the principles are the same as when planning any garden site; prepare the soil, add tons of organic matter and compost, and use a balanced organic fertiliser, preferably a slow release form as it will give plants a consistent boost of nutrition throughout their growing season. During peak production time, apply periodic doses of dilute liquid fertiliser, but ensure that you don’t encourage too much leafy growth by adding anything very nitrate heavy, a tomato feed is more suitable. Ensure that you water regularly, especially during dry spells, erratic water­ing leads to erratic blooms.

To ensure flowers have a long life indoors, there are a few simple rules to follow:

  • Never pick flowers during the day in the full heat of the sun. Early morning or late afternoon is the best time.
  • Have a bucket of water ready to put the flowers into as soon as picked.
  • Fill a clean sterile vase with room temperature water, then add a tiny splash of bleach to keep the water clean. Be careful not to overdo it as too much bleach will simply kill the flower off.
  • Remove any of the foliage that is just below the water line because it will only encourage algal and bacterial growth. Recut the stems, immediately plunging them in boiling water for about 20 seconds to seal them.
  • If you change the water in your container each day you will extend the life of the display further.

What to Grow

When selecting plants, especially for cutting, go for flower, fruit, texture and foliage. You probably are already growing many plants that work well in arrangements such as Shasta daisies, coreopsis, phlox, euphorbias and delphiniums. Some plants just don’t work indoors, once cut they flop and wither. Examples are oriental poppies, cherry and other may blossoms, hellebores and day lilies.

 

To encourage production, and keep plants blooming throughout the summer, remember to deadhead every single day. Deadheading prevents plants from forming seeds and fulfilling their biological destiny, so they have to flower again. Also be vigorous with your pest control, be it organic or chemical.

Below are some of my favourites for cutting

  • Achillia
  • Anthemis
  • Aster
  • Carnation
  • Chrysanthemum
  • Cornflowers
  • Cosmos
  • Delphinium
  • Echinops
  • Eryngium
  • Fennell
  • Gazania
  • Marigolds
  • Nicotiana
  • Nigella
  • Peony
  • Quaking Grass
  • Queen Anne’s Lace
  • Roses
  • Scabious
  • Snapdragon
  • Zinnia

 

 

 

Pruning to make space & create interest

My own garden is finally, after almost fourteen years living here, and one year since he builders wreaked their havoc, starting to look more mature and take shape. My priority was to get some permanent planting established – trees, shrubs and evergreens – to give it year-round interest and create some privacy (vital in a town garden), structure and refuge for birds and wildlife. The problem with this is that large shrubs and trees, apart from sapping nutrients from the soil, create shade and take up valuable space. What I have done, and am continuing to do, with young shrubs is to create a sort of lollipop effect. If you trim out all of the lower branches and side shoots, you can turn almost any evergreen shrub into a standard. This means that you create light and valuable space underneath, where you can continue to grow flowering plants. You can get really creative and topiarise evergreens into various shapes to suit. I have (admittedly a rather cack-handed-looking) sort of umbrella and a large ball of laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) on top of bare stems about one metre tall, cones, balls and squares of box (Buxus sempervirens) and am working on cloud pruning a holly (Ilex aquifolioum). Cloud pruning refers to a technique whereby you thin out the branches of the plant to a few good strong leaders pointing in various directions and create puffy cloud-like balls of foliage at the end of each. The benefits of pruning and shaping plants can really be seen in winter, when the garden is bare and the herbaceous plants have died back. The structure and various shapes give interest and look far less boring than a few blobs of untidy greenery. Take a look now at what you have growing around and underneath your shrubs and small trees, and take out a loppers to give them space to grow. Versailles it is not, but maybe I can aspire to the Petit Trianon!

Colour in Spring for the unprepared Gardener

So many people I meet sigh and moan that they have no colour in their gardens in spring. Inevitably, this is because the unfortunate gardener wasn’t quite as organised as they had hoped to be, and never got around to planting any bulbs back in the autumn.

Gardening is all about forward thinking and note taking. There are, however, things you can do to brighten up a spring garden devoid of bulbs. The insanely expensive solution is to go to a smart garden centre and buy lots of spring bulbs in pots and plant them out. The more sensible course is to derive colour from elsewhere, by using perennials and self-seeding annuals. Some of these plants are not easily found in garden centres, though, so look online or ask a friend, very nicely, to give you some divisions and spares and get them into the ground as soon as possible.

A dead easy plant, which is as tough as old wellies, is Doronicum, a yellow, daisy-like flower on long stems that will seed everywhere. Another is Pulmonaria officinalis. The most common Pulmonaria is the familiar “soldiers and sailors”, named for its blue and red flowers. This has large, white spotted foliage and is a great and vigorous filler, providing year-round interest. There are far smarter varieties available from specialist nurseries, such as the red flowered David Ward, with lovely white and green variegated leaves, and Roy Davidson with its azure blue flowers, or try a homegrown variety, June Blake’s lovely Blake’s Silver. The better varieties tend to seed the usual spotty variety, so pull them out as soon as you see them and propagate the good ones by division only.

Other good ground cover spreaders are the blue bugle flower Ajuga reptans and white flowered, glossy leaved Pachyphragma macrophyllum. For damp patches, Lysichiton americanus has gloriously exotic looking yellow heads with showy, phallic spadix (the long pointy looking thing) and is quite easy to transplant. Another failsafe plant, which is also as cheap as chips, is the common or garden wallflower, Cheiranthus cheiri. These plants are sold in all garden centres, come in lovely reds, oranges and yellows, and have a delicious, heady scent. Primulas and primroses, pictured below, are also great plants to have in the garden, as they are easily divided and many self-seed with abandon. Primula varieties come in a plethora of colours and are cheap to buy and easy to find. The native primrose is, naturally, the nicest of all. It is illegal to dig it up from the roadside, so again buy or beg this one.

Last, but not least, think of all the gorgeous spring flowering shrubs you can buy to add height and year-round interest. Viburnums, evergreen or deciduous, all have spring flowers, as do Magnolias, Camellias, Amelanchier and the suburban cherries. So don’t be disheartened by your empty garden — grab your wallet and your spade and get going now.

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Jobs for March and April

  • If you are short of colour from lack of bulbs, add fillers – see right for my top tips.
  • This is a good time to move shrubs.
  • Cut back hard shrubs grown for colourful winter stems, such as dogwoods, to ensure the best colours for next year,
  • Layer shrubs and clematis to propagate. This means covering shoots close to the ground with soil and allowing them to root to give a new plant.
  • Keep lifting and dividing large clumps of perennials – throw out the old, worn-out centres and make new plants from the surrounding rooted pieces.
  • Plant summer bulbs.
  • Sow hardy annuals, such as Nigella, where you want them to flower.
  • Reseed bare patches of lawn.
  • Start mowing the grass with the blades
  • Start of your dahlia tubers and take cuttings for new plants when about 5cm long.
  • Stake perennials that are starting to grow and apt to flop.
  • Deadhead daffodils, but don’t cut away the leaves until rotted down.
  • Start sowing and planting outdoor veg and plant tomato seeds under glass.
  • Be slug and snail vigilant.

set high.

 

 

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.

 

Builders

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Festive Tipples from the Hedgerow

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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