A Gardens Balancing Act

This article was written for and published in The Tribesman newpaper Wednesday 6th April 2011.

It’s never a bad week to be a gardener in this country, well, not as far as this happy fellow is concerned. That said I can’t disagree that it has been an odd week, weather wise and one that has just made my working life in the great outdoors just that little bit trickier. But then I’ve always said I knew what I was getting into when I started growing my own plants at five years of age.

My heart breaks for a lot of the ornamental plants in this country that have taken an absolute battering over the last eighteen months. I know clients who are holding off, yet again, just to see if some of their plant population will return to even part of their former glory. Hedges that are usually and logically considered resilient like the Grisilinia litoralis are in the most part entirely leafless but seem to be on their way back. On the other hand trees like the Cordyline australis, the palm tree as we know it, synonymous with 1980’s Irish planting have been absolutely whacked. In my own garden the hedge of choice is the Laurus nobilis, the bay laurel – I like it as it doubles up as a herb as well as a hedge – it is semi brown were it has been burnt to an absolute crisp by the frost but it still retains about ninety per cent of it’s green foliage.

The theory behind the scenes of CSI Plant Life is quite simple. Plant cells contain water and when water freezes or goes below zero Celsius it expands. The effect on the plant is that the plant cell bursts, explodes – is probably a better word to use in this case – and therefore dies. It is in short beyond return. Necrosis may be an inappropriate word to use here regarding a particular plant cell, but as regards the plant itself, maybe not as the adverse weather may only have caused damage to some of the cells or as we see it, it may not have killed it off the plant in its entirety.

It’s good to remember that not all trees are in leaf at this moment. My Tilia cordata Greenspire are still in bud for example and it is this that one should bear in mind when assessing aesthetically. I’m thinking of the common green Grisilinia hedging here as I type just so we are on the same wavelength… the easiest and most  logic scientific experiment to conduct [I jest slightly] is to scratch the bark or stem with a coin and on seeing green below the bark or darker surface of the stem, we know there is life.

What I have done in the past, with examples like historically badly pruned roses were die back has set in is to prune it back until I can see brown no more. Amputation is a tough word to suggest as an analogy here, but quite fitting. Last season I took an absolute beauty of a Japanese maple from almost five feet to a mere twelve inches. Were a cut was made, inch by inch going down each stem as I looked down over that cut I checked to see if there was brown running through the cross section until I could see just healthy life. The plant in the end looked abysmal. Shocking in fact. But it was worth the time investment to see if it would come back. It did as a by the way. But then the sub zero temperatures returned and got it the second time round.

Other gardeners I have spoke to have looked on the double visitation of the sub zero extremes in a brighter light. Some say the garden needed that clear out and a refresh. A fresh coat of new paint and a bit of new carpet in the living room you might say. And it seems, in their eyes the man with the remote control for the great outdoors has just given them an excuse to clear out a decent percentage of their planting.

I have lost a fair amount of my plants. About twenty per cent were recently planted bare root trees. It’s sad for a plant lover to see them never wake up after a winter sleeping but nature does that. it has been doing so for eons.

The bright side of all of this for me, is that it did get me to think about others who use my garden. The birds, bees, insects and the like. I started reading up on biodiversity. It’s a really fashionable word  that I never really understood, for good reason. Mainly, as it seems I had been doing most of it already, I just didn’t realise it was admirable to have parts of my garden looking like it is neglected, intentionally.

I have bird boxes erected, piles of logs sit next to an old Belfast sink submerged in the soil sited in a shaded part of the garden. The green waste heap is constantly occupied by a flurry of young birds rustling for whatever may be of interest and the grass under my fruit trees has never been cut. I chose to let the grass grow around this cluster of trees because I didn’t fancy getting dizzy pushing a lawnmower around thirty fruit trees. ‘My research’ tells me, that it’s great for wildflowers and balancing nature and insects and I’m a little thinking to myself… well there’s a grand excuse for doing a lot less in the garden this week!

From reading last weeks article you probably realise in the very nicest way of saying, I have a life that contains a child, three hens, two dogs and a garden and with only twenty four hours in the day. For that and many more reasons I want my garden beside me.

I like fresh flowers on my kitchen table and my herbs by my back door. I like my fruit trees at the side of the house, my picnic table and two chairs nestled nicely in between. I dislike washing lines and washing clothes, but in this families garden they are very much necessary and logic, when the weather is right of course.

Once again, the balance is what I refer to. A balance for insects and humans and growing my own and shrubs and trees. Where a plant dies and trees falter, biodiversity benefits and new life takes its place. Vegetables and fruit are great to grow and I love it dearly. But when they are out of season the birds and bees so necessary for our fruit trees need a place to visit and hide.

I sometimes need to remind myself that my family need a place to sit, play, enjoy and admire the beauty of what is also their garden and their place in the great outdoors.

Peter Donegan

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