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 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.