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.

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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.

And PLEASE:

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.

Vine Weevil Alert!

g_weev

A Vine Weevil Grub

Take a look at the pictures  above and below and please excuse the poor quality. This was taken today and it shows one of a number of complete and utter bastards I found in a pot today. This particular little bugger is vine weevil grub – study it closely and take heed – note its curly little white body and its dirty brown mouth and if you see one SQUASH THE LITTLE BLIGHTER IMMEDIATELY.

weevad

The Adult Vine Weevil

I knew something was up when I saw that my old reliable French Marguerite (Argyranthemum frutescens) was looking not just poorly, but utterly defeated. On touching it, it just came away in my hands and I immediately knew what was up. A quick investigation in the soil in the pot revealed a gang of the white wriggly grubs close to the top of the soil and confirmed that I had a serious vine weevil problem,

Vine weevils are dreadful pests, really, really annoying and tend to pick on favourite plants. Container plants are particularly susceptible. Though the adults are troublesome; they chew tell-tale semi-circular bites of out of leaves, it is their grubs that cause the catastrophic damage by eating the roots of plants, sneakily under the soil surface, so it is only when the damage becomes apparent and the plant dies that you notice their presence. By this time it usually too late to save the plant.

Adult vine weevils are curious creatures their Latin name is Otiorhynchus sulcatus – the sulcatus means grooved and you will notice the leathery backs of the vine weevils are indeed grooved. They look like beetles but there are matte and leathery rather than shiny and have little snouts. All of them are female. They reproduce by parthenogenesis –which means virgin creation in Greek, but anything less virgin-like and innocent you would be hard pressed to find. Each female fan produce offspring from unfertilized eggs.

Naturally weevils have no taste for dandelions, common daisies, thistle, bind weed or other pesky plants, instead they prefer ornamental plants and fruits, especially precious container grown specimens. From now – late spring until midsummer the little fat grubs will be feasting, growing fatter and greedier by the day until the time comes for them to sleep and metamorphose into adults and the adults will be busy laying more eggs – each one will lay hundreds in a lifetime, and remember, she doesn’t have to hang around waiting for a Mr vine weevil to mate with.

So how do you control these little creeps? The best way is obviously to stamp on, squash, and crush and give no quarter at all to any live adult weevils or their grubs. Sometimes the odd adult, brazen hussies that they are, will waltz across the floor of the house. You must immediately kill the beast and dispose of the body. When you find an infestation in a pot you must throw away the soil – every bit of it. If you think the plant has a chance of survival wash the roots thoroughly, take off every bit of soil and examine it to make sure there are no grubs (or adults) left on the plant, repot in clean, sterile soil and give it a good water and feed.

As I do with slugs, the best way to find the weevils is to get out in the evenings and hunt them down. If you suspect and infestation or see the tell-tale chunks bitten out of the leaf margins of plants like bergenia or rhododendron, lay some newspaper underneath the plants and give them a good shake to see if you can knock any weevils that might be hiding off their perches. Regularly check pot plants for signs of weakening, look underneath them and dig your fingers into the soil to see if you can spot any white grubs.

The best control for vine weevils is by encouraging gardener friendly wildlife into the garden such as hedgehogs, frogs and birds who will eat the grubs. A biological control is readily available, a nematode worm. The nematode is a tiny little creature which loves to feast on the baby grubs. When you buy the nematodes they come in a packet and you mix what looks like dry powder into water and pour it onto your plants. The down side to nematodes is that they only work in warmer weather.

If you are non-organic and have just had enough you can go for the scorched earth solution and try acetamiprid – a chemical insecticide. You can’t use this on any edible plants and you also run the risk of killing bugs that really don’t cause any harm at all.

 

Gardening for lazybones

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day.
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
a cloud come over the sunlit arch,
And wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

From Two Tramps in Mud Time by Robert Frost (1926)

 

If I had a euro for every time someone says to me ‘but I want a low maintenance garden’ I’d be as rich as Croesus. It is possible to have a relatively low maintenance garden but there really are no low maintenance blowsy, old-fashioned flower gardens; they are like those blonde, demanding glossy women you see on the arms of oligarchs – super high-maintenance. A garden that performs season after season requires intensive work, bulb planting, cutting back, dividing, moving, deadheading and planning.

 

For truly low maintenance the best way to proceed is to stick to flowering and evergreen shrubs which only require an annual pruning, small trees and very easy perennials that come up from year to year, do not self-seed profligately and some spring and summer bulbs which come up reliably from year to year.

 

A number of companies manufacture porous membrane (categorically not plastic sheeting) which you can put over freshly weeded and prepared soil. You then cut a flaps in the membrane, dig planting holes, pop in the plants and then cover u the holes again around the plants with a mulch – general of gravel. Make sure you use plenty of mulch so absolutely none of the membrane is visible, especially around the edges. Err on the side of excess, as the mulch will settle and spread out quickly and you don’t want any bald spots to appear. It is really important to plant generously too – nothing looks drearier or more depressing than an expanse of gravel with three of four miserable, tiny shrubs dotted about. Seeds will still self-sow and grow in gravel or other mulch, but they should be easier to weed out when there is a membrane between their roots and the soil below.

 

If you have your heart set on a ‘proper’ flower garden but don’t have a lot of time or are just bone idle and can’t be bothered, there are some short cuts and lazy tricks to make things easier. Firstly really do a bit of homework and find the very best, all-round, top performing plants.  So go for the most disease-resistant, repeat-flowering roses and plants which will put on a good show for a long season. Another trick is to grow plants slugs and snails don’t like, thus saving you a lot of time and heartache with slug patrol. You can still grow Hostas but just choose a variety like Sieboldiana which are more resistant. You can also use the porous membrane trick described above to cut down on weeding. Only use bulbs that come up reliably year after year and don’t need dividing very often, so no tulips or iris reticulata – you can use these, but plant them in pots. Similarly only use dahlia in pots, so you don’t have to lift and replant year after year. You can just pop the pots in a shed or frost free spot during winter and then dot the pots around the garden where you want the flowers to be. If you want to grow tender and half hardy annuals and you have no greenhouse and don’t want the faff of seeds, pricking out and potting on use plug plants (order them now). They’re sent at just the right time for planting, and with step by step instructions. You can also sow hardy annuals like opium poppies and nigella straight into gravel and they will come up and survive just fine. Most gardening books and magazines advise adding organic matter to your soil each spring – a great and accurate tip, but they usually specify laborious digging in. I find that this is totally unnecessary. If you make sure you have weeded the soil, you can just bung a load of compost or other well-rotted organic matter on top and the worms and wiggies will work it into the soil beneath for you. You can also save time on staking tall plants by putting in the supports around the plants before they come up. If you don’t mind the garden looking a bit Derek Jarman fire a load of twiggy sticks in the ground around the plants or seeds and they will grow up using the supports as they come along. A famous and well-regarded garden designer I know of never, ever cleared fallen leaves but left them as a ‘natural mulch’ in her woodland garden without any ill effects, though I would advise removal to make leaf mould in the flower garden.

 

So there you go, tips for lazy bones like me, I’m off for a lie down with a book now – happy gardening.hammock2

Falling in love again……

‘Planting and Gardening addes much to the Health and Content of Man’

Moses Cook The manner of raising, ordering and improving forest-trees 1676

I wrote the piece below over a year ago. It is interesting as I really had done a lot more in the garden than I had given myself credit for, which of course I only now realise with the benefit of both hindsight and present observations:

Gertrude Jekyll said in 1899 that ‘the love of gardening is a seed that once won never dies, but grown and grows to and enduring and ever increasing source of happiness’, although I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment, it can on occasion, as in every love affair, cause a great deal of heartache, not to say backache. After losing interest in the garden in late autumn and actually – most uncharacteristically for me -falling out of love with it during the winter months I am feeling cheered and galvanised again. I am not sure what it was about last autumn but I have never, ever been so slack in the garden. Perhaps it was on account of the fine weather and lack of rainfall that the demands of watering and staking plants drooping in the heat began to bore me. There were also the competing demands of the come hither and alluring seashore which enticed me away from ever-present and high-maintenance first love.  Never was there such a year for swimming and chatting on the rocks between dips with friends in the long hours of daylight and warm sunshine.  With the callousness of a faithless lover I turned my back on the flowerbeds.  Weeds grew with abandon, stalks drooped, promiscuous plants were left to seed as others shrivelled with neglect and the patch of lawn became a small, yellowing meadow.    By the time the spell was broken by the return to normal meteorological service I felt defeated by the amount of work to be done and decided to leave things until spring. I paid a heavy price for my philandering and had to get down to work extra early. the hellebores sprang from the traps particularly prematurely this year – not just the Helleborus nigra – so called the Christmas rose but all the hybrids popped up, including some plants that I don’t usually see until April. This only drew attention to the scandalous wreckage of the garden, so instead of sitting back and enjoying the early spring I had to get out in the freezing cold and do a lot of the jobs that should have been done months before.   For all of you who worked hard on the autumn tidy up last year, March named after the Roman god of war is, appropriately enough, the beginning of the martial year and the true start of the gardening year when we gardeners once more set to war with nature, attacking slugs and beasties, weeding and pruning and trying to put manners on the garden.

So get out there and smell the fresh air, feel the first rays of thin sunshine on your back, listen to the frogs noisy lovemaking in the pond and fall back in love with the outdoors and get down to your jobs for spring as detailed below!

Ash Dieback & Horse Chestnut Moths

 

 

There are a number of diseases around which devastate trees and shrubs. Some, like the Sclerotinia fungus, which decimates Griselinia hedges is, as far as I am concerned, manna from heaven. Anything that will clear the suburbs of that horribly, nasty, shiny green-leaved bore of a plant is good news. There are a couple of very serious threats to our forest and decorative trees however that are extremely worrying and could be as catastrophic as Dutch Elm disease was in the late 1970s and 1980s. One affects the beloved horse chestnut and the other our native ash. You have probably heard a lot about Ash Dieback disease already. But to recap, this is a serious disease of the Ash (Fraxinus species) caused by a nasty fungus, Hymenoscyphus fraxineus affecting trees of any age in the wild, gardens and plant collections. The disease can be fatal, particularly among younger trees and leaves older trees looking very depressed indeed.   Ash is such a common tree in Ireland that there is great potential for this disease to forever alter the appearance and biodiversity of our hedgerows and woodlands. It is important to spot the symptoms of Ash Dieback early, and if you find an infected tree, it will need to be felled and burnt immediately. As a precaution don’t ever use the leaves of ash to make leaf-mould. If you have ash in your garden, try and collect and burn all fallen leaves. Symptoms to look out for are as follows:

  • Leaves which wilt during the summertime, turning black.
  • shoots die from the tip back to a branch
  • open wounds where a stalk meets the main stem of saplings
  • leaf discolouration and loss

Forest and land owners are asked to be vigilant for the disease and to report (with photographs, if possible) any sites where they have concerns about unusual ill health in ash, to the: Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, by e-mail forestprotection@agriculture.gov.ie or phone (01-607 2651).

The threat to horse chestnuts is the eponymous horse chestnut leaf-mining moth (Cameraria ohridella). The moths feed on the leaves of trees, turning them brown and causing them to drop in the late summer. Infested leaves are often brown and appear quite dry and make trees look very unsightly.

Although infestation itself does not kill the trees, it can weaken the tree’s immune system and make it vulnerable to other diseases, including bleeding canker, a bacterial disease that creates unsightly leaking lesions on the trunk.

If you spot the moths or their caterpillars on trees, or suspect you may have an infestation  http://www.mothsireland.com/ would love to hear from you and you should also contact the Department of Agriculture your local plant health inspector or contact:  The British Conker Tree Science project is urging people to record sightings of moth-infected trees on its website to help track the spread of disease.

For further information, visit: www.teagasc.ie/forestry and www.agriculture.gov.ie

 

Jobs for Winter

Jobs for winter

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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

Colour in the Winter 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:

Foliage:

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.

Berries:

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

Flowers:

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

Blessington Basin

The Blessington Basin was developed as a result of the creation of the Royal Canal. Like its sibling, the Grand Canal, the Royal Canal was built to transfer freight and passenger boats from the Liffey at Dublin to the Shannon River, this was a hugely innovative plan and, prior to the building of the railways in the later half of the nineteenth century, the greatest infrastructural undertaking to date. The Royal Canal’s terminus was at Richmond Harbour at Cloondara in County Longford. 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 City markets and the law courts.

Cities were dangerous places to live until the 20th century. City populations constantly had to be bolstered by an influx of workers from the countryside. Death rates were high for working people, mostly due to the dreadful lack of sanitation and clean water. Outbreaks of cholera and dysentry were frequent and infant mortality was shockingly high. Providing a clean 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 both to make an extra profit and

Blessington Street Basin

Blessington Street Basin

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.

Blessington Street Basin

Blessington Street Basin

A bit about soil

Winter is a great time to make plans for next year.  Take a good, long, hard look at the garden and be your harshest critic. Think what you have got wrong and be ruthless – whatever didn’t perform this year take out and either donate to a friend or pot up and give to your nearest charity shop or jumble sale. When plants don’t perform it means that they are unhappy in their surroundings. That is why it is important to read a bit about where they originate. A plant that is native to woodlands is not going to do well in a sandy garden on a windswept hillside by the sea, likewise a plant that is native to the Spanish mountains will not thrive if plant in a soggy bog garden.

There are a few key factors to think about when planting:

a. does the plant like sun or shade, or what is called dappled shade, i.e. gentle fluttering shadows cast by a leafy tree nearby.

b. if the plant is a shade-lover, what kind of shade does it like? There is an enormous difference between dry shade – which is very difficult and wet shade, which isn’t so bad.

c. does the plant like a sheltered position or is it happiest out in the open? Praire plants such as echinacea fall into the latter category.

d. what kind of soil does the plant like?

The last question is possibly the most important. If you haven’t figured out what kind of soil you have do so now. Broadly speaking you will have sandy, clay or loamy soil. Clay soil is heavy and frequently waterlogged. This soil benefits from the addition of gritty material to improve drainage but is generally very fertile. You will find keeping Mediterranean or alpine plants tricky. A sandy soil is very light and free-draining, so you will need to add lots of organic material to improve fertility, and you will be best going for drought tolerant and seaside plants. A loamy soil is the perfect growing medium, and if you have it, you are very lucky and grow almost anything. Soil Ph. is the other major consideration when planning what to plant in your garden.  You can buy Ph. soil testing kits in all garden centres and if you have an acid soil, lime lovers are out. Go instead for all those plants many of us would love to grow but can’t without a lot of faff and bother and importation of copious amounts of ericaceous compost – Rhododendrons, azaleas, blue hydrangea and go for a lovely Robinsonian wild garden look. If you have an alkaline or limey soil, it tends to be chalky and needs plants that will not just tolerate but thrive in such conditions. Limey soils are perfect for creating wildflower meadows and will take lots of drought tolerant species and are suitable for Mediterranean style gardens.  Last of all consider the shape of your beds and your hard landscaping. Avoid curvy beds and go instead for a sharp formal layout. You can soften hard edges with plant material, but a strong series of straight lines gives a better framework to work from.

Cyclamen, Arum italicum and Hellebore

Cyclamen, Arum italicum and Hellebore on humus rich soil in light shade