Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The neighbours

When The Girl was a toddler, she had an obsession with cows, and even before we built our house here, this was her favourite place to visit and wave to the cows in the distance.

When I mow the lawn, though, they are not so distant anymore, and the smell of mown grass makes them gather longingly and stare at our garden.

Don't even think about it, guys.

Sunday, 20 May 2012


More than anything else, gardening involves weeding – nature dislikes our imposed order and wants to spill its profusion back over our land, and all gardeners must constantly deal with their weeds in some way.

In weeds’ defence, though, remember that they are simply the plants we don’t think we can use, and they can tell us a lot about our soil. If our soil is poor, acidic, chalky or has some other quality, we can tell in part by the weeds that come up. Remember also that they are part of the natural cycle of succession; Nature abhors like a vacuum, and any bare earth exposed in the wild is quickly covered with waves of opportunists that protect the soil from the elements and prepare the way for trees and other permanent residents. We plant our crops on bare soil, and any soil contains dozens of weed seeds waiting for decades for the opportunity you have given them. These days, of course, many people simply spray poisons on weeds -- poisons that could make their way into your food later on. Instead, try some of these other ways of handling your enthusiastic guests:

 1.) Eat them. Nettles, dandelions, clover, daisies, fat hen, and many other plants are delicious and full of vitamins – and free. In the spring the fields are covered with free food; you could get all your greens this way, for months, until the rest of your crops come up. Even if you don’t like them, maybe you have chickens or other animals that will.

 2.) Soak them. Put all the weeds in a bucket of water, and keep stuffing more in until it is full. After a few weeks the weeds and seeds should have rotted, and the liquid should be a nutritious “tea” that you can use to water the garden. The rotted plants will be pungent, but you can throw them on the compost pile and cover them with earth to cut the smell. If you keep weeding every day or week, you can line up several buckets according to week, and keep using the latest as fertiliser.

3.) Burn them. If you throw weeds on the compost after they have seeded, the earth you get from that compost will keep on sprouting weeds for years to come. You can eliminate weeds and seeds alike, though, by burning them, and the resulting ash is good for the soil.

 UK Victory Garden handbooks in World War II recommended making burn mounds to sterilise soil; lay straw on the ground in a circle perhaps two metres across, with a pipe of terra cotta or other non-flammable material on top of the straw – from the middle to the edge of the straw, like the hand of a clock. Then they lay pruned branches and other wood in a pile on the straw, and cover those with all the weeds gathered from the gardens.

Finally they cover the whole thing with earth, reach inside the terra cotta pipe, and light the straw. This method was supposed to kill off all the weeds and sterilise the soil of weed seeds all in one go, and create potash that could be used to fertilise tomatoes and other hungry plants.

 4.) Make peace with them. If the weeds are right next to your crops, you can certainly keep them from overrunning your beds. But if they are on your lawn, save yourself some work and pick only the least desirable weeds, leaving the lovely and useful ones to colonise your property. If you have children, for example, pick the nettles but leave the dandelions, which provide them so much entertainment. Pick the thistles but leave the chamomile, whose flowers you can pick for tea. Eventually you will have, not a lawn, but a very useful flower meadow, which looks nicer and is better for the soil.

Photo: Our property a few years ago, before we started our gardens.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Life with Girl

The Girl provided moral support while I worked on building a chicken coop this weekend, and between the lumber she found many bugs to inspect. I showed her how to hammer a nail and take it out, and she was so pleased that she kept on going, just for practice. We might end up with a well-nailed coop.

Later that day we rode our bicycles together along the canal by our house, and stopped, as we often do, by the turf bridge. For decades workmen harvested (mined?) the peat – called turf here in the Bog of Allen – and loaded it onto carts on rails, pulled by horses up to this now-rusted iron structure, to be loaded onto horse-drawn barge and pulled to the furnaces and stoves of Dublin. Now it’s a spot for The Girl to stop her bike, take off her shoes and dip her feet in the icy water. And this particular day, to accidentally drop her bicycle basket in the canal.

The waters were clear enough that we could see it a metre and a half down. As a devastated look spread over her face, I put my arm around her. “It’s my fault, Daddy,” she said. I told her that I could help her out, but I wanted her to read some extra for me tonight. “I promise,” she said. I plunged into the near-freezing water, and emerged with the basket.

During the very cold bicycle home, The Girl said. “I’ll never do that again.” Good, I said, smiling, because you can swim now, and next time I’m making you get it.


Once in a while, I take The Girl to the cinema, and whenever possible it’s to – for her it’s a whole new world, and for me a trip to the past. I used to work as a film critic for a newspaper chain in the USA, which sounds like great job until you realise how many bad movies you have to see. In the last decade or so, however, I have seen only a few movies a year, withdrawing from that and most other mainstream media.

The other day, though, we saw Pirates: An Adventure with Scientists, and it not only had the charm of other works from the creators of Wallace and Gromit, and like their other films was enjoyably ridiculous, with Charles Darwin and a pirate teaming up to fight Queen Victoria and rescue the last dodo. Victorian Britain, pirates, scientists, dodos – it’s like they took all her favourite things and put them in a blender.  "That was the best movie ever!" she said, "although it wasn't a very accurate film, was it?" she asked, sincerely. No, I said, but stories don't have to be.

Cinemas have become so expensive, though, that we more often have a “movie night” at home once every couple of weeks. I brought home A Night at the Opera recently, which is one of her new favourites, and I often bring home old musicals. Only watching them again for the first time since my own childhood, though, do I realise how family-unfriendly some of these musicals were. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, for example, featured hillbillies who kidnap women for marriage; Carousel, a carny who beats up his wife before turning to crime. I suppose it's no stranger than Sweeny Todd ...

Still, songs and choreography are amazing, and tonight as she curled up in my arms and watched “June is Busting Out all Over” from Carousel, she was as much in awe of the dancing as I was. I don’t need to show her the whole movie; I treat it as I do David Attenborough’s documentaries, encouraging her to watch the parts when the seal pups are happily frolicking in the surf, and knowing to skip ahead before the orcas appear.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

May in Ireland

Native-born Irish find the weather here annoying; it takes an immigrant to be truly maddened. March was a blessed reprieve from our Gothic winters, bringing enough sunlight and warmth that The Girl and I wore shorts one day. Then April brought us back to single-digit temperatures and near-constant rain. County Clare, thankfully, remained mostly dry for our camping trip, and we shielded ourselves from the sharp winds shooting over the waters of Lough Derg. 

It remains chilly here, plausibly January rather than May, and it might remain so all summer for all I know. We got a good start to the year, adding a farmer friend’s ripening manure to our garden beds when it was still winter, digging it in and letting it mix with the soil. Our garden beds are almost full now, seeded in cabbages and broccoli, radishes and lettuce, spinaches and kohlrabi, and our tomatoes and aubergines have a good start in our greenhouse. As I jogged along the canal this morning, The Girl riding her bicycle beside me, we passed neighbours turning the earth in their potato fields and farmers clearing the fields of brushwood.  

So little, though, has poked through the soil – they all seem to be waiting for a better opportunity, and despite our early start most plants have stalled. What few plants we have so far – spinaches and cabbages --have adoring fans in the slugs. Only slugs, for the acid soil of our bogland seems to prohibit snails, or I would be out every morning eagerly gathering snails for lunch. Our hedgehog, however, seems to help with the slugs, and when we get chickens we will get additional help. Our amourous pigeons have multiplied around our beds and are thoroughly enjoying our cabbages – we don’t have a gun, so I’m beginning to wonder whether any of the Victorian manuals I collect have instructions for building pigeon traps.

If the weather is discouraging our garden crops, though, they have not deterred the wild plants and grasses – I mowed our acre of land here today, and got so much compost that our massive bin overflowed. I have been enjoying nettles, dandelions and cowslips – the last two in salads, the first two sautéed or as tea, and all of them as wine. As I have drawn my parsnip wines – one with ginger, one with elderberries and one with beetroots – from the carboys and bottled them, the empty carboys have quickly been used for whatever weed is appearing around us. 

Nettles are at the perfect size this month – before this they are too small, and after this they get stringy – and fat hen, jack-by-the-hedge and Good King Henry should be appearing soon. Hawthorn leaves remain somewhat edible, although they are getting tougher and less tasty every day as they get ready to bloom. Lime trees, also called lindens, are just beginning to leaf, and as their leaves come in they can be eaten like lettuce. 

May’s sun and warmth offers a good opportunity for green manure crops like comfrey – its deep roots bring nutrients from deep in the soil, and its soft tissues decompose quickly in the compost. We like to take the comfrey that grow wild down the road and cut them, and bring them in wheelbarrows to our compost bin; in six months or so they will give us several wheelbarrows full of rich compost that we can add to our soil for free. 

It’s raining again now, as it does for days at a time here. Yet that’s the price we pay for such lush country, and once in a while, when the sun comes out, it looks like the postcards.  

Photo: The forest in Tuamgraney, County Clare.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Weekend in the woods

The Girl and I spent the weekend in the far woods of County Clare, where an amazing group called CELT offers courses in woodland crafts. The Girl was old enough, this year, to take the course for children, and learned to carve walking sticks and a spoon for herself. Her instructor took several children around the woods there, showing them the various animal tracks, what plants to eat and what to avoid. I started carving a bow, but it's a long way from finished.

We also took a long walk around the forest with the old man who has owned and maintained the land for decades, Del Harding. Harding led a group of us across the landscape features, from an ancient spring to a Victorian sawyer pit to his newly-dug frog pond. He pointed out obscure plants and flowers in unobtrusive crannies, spoke lovingly of the individual animals that lived there. Most of all, he talked about wood and soil, how he coppices the occasional tree to create more new growth and either carve the wood or use it to recultivate the healthy mattress of underfoot mycellium.

That night we and others gathered around a campfire and sang, The Girl singing along and playing sticks to others' fiddle and washboard. As we camped outside for the night, The Girl for the first time, she asked, "Can we do this every weekend?"