Catherine FitzGerald describes the beauties of spring at Glin, and the garden jobs to tackle now, from moving to mulching. The days are stretching out, the quality of the light is changing; it’s time to get busy
It has been a season of storms and gales. Here at Glin, on the Shannon Estuary, swirls of sleet — or is it hail? — are suddenly falling outside my bedroom window and the winds have picked up again. Trees have been uprooted over the winter and are lying on their sides, their wide, shallow root systems exposed.
Our normally picturesque babbling brook, which runs down the side of the garden, fringed in ferns and woodrush, has turned into an aggressive torrent. At a certain point, it sinks underground into two old stone box drains that sit side by side — normally hidden — but due to the force of water, the earth ceiling has started to collapse. We will have perplexing engineering works on our hands. So far we have dug out a huge slag heap of soil and stone — what is the solution? We aren’t sure yet.
So we are sharp-eyed for signs of spring and cheer in the garden. We are lucky in that the evergreens have carried us through the winter looking full and luxuriant. Yesterday the sun came out and there was blue sky behind the Old Giant: the Monterey pine planted to the side of the house by great-grandmother Rachel in the 1890s. It looked so beautiful with its great, ridged limbs cloaked in dark green needles completely unaffected by the winter tumults. What a noble creature! I couldn’t help but sigh in admiration.
There have also been the camellias; the early ones start flowering before Christmas. They are the most rewarding of plants — ours get zero attention and flower for months. I particularly love grandmother Veronica’s towering red japonica — with a neat, flat face like the Coco Chanel flower; the even, overlapping petals a geometric wonder. It was taken as a cutting in the 1930s from the Misses Leslies at neighbouring Tarbert House. Another wonderful red has the most poetic of names: ‘Freedom Bell’ — and the white ‘Cornish Snow’, with its elegant, open habit and smaller pointy leaves, is a good contrast to the blowsier williamsii hybrids.
They are all planted round a Japanese tombstone. I like to dream I’m in a Shinto shrine somewhere outside Kyoto. Worshipping nature and the ancestors, of course. There is an Acer palmatum ‘Senkaki’ close by, and an exotic Japanese tree peony that I bought at the ‘Rare and Special Plant Fair’, which was held at Glin a few years ago. It will come into its own in May with a lavish rumpled pink flower.
Part of the appeal of camellias is their mantle of dark green glossy leaves, whereas witch hazels (Hamamelis) flower from the bare stems in the most wondrous way. Their yellow or rust-coloured flowers appear spidery and otherworldly — like something from beneath the sea, an exotic sea anemone waving in the tide. We have yellow H. ‘Pallida’ and ‘Arnold Promise’, which both have a special spicy scent.
Spring bulbs are the best value. Once they are planted, you forget about them for half the year, but then — ah, the joy and the gloating! No maintenance, no weeding required, just unalloyed pleasure. Cyclamen in different shades of pink have colonised the pine-needly ground beneath the Old Giant, and in January different varieties of snowdrops start — first of the special ones to appear is Galanthus ‘Mrs Macnamara’, given to me by friend and gardener Mary Keen. It has luscious, long glaucous leaves.
I do love the larger varieties that pack such a punch — ‘Sam Arnott’ is close on its heels. Once they are over but are still “in the green”, you can move them around and extend your colony. The snowdrop relative ‘Spring Snowflake’ is a winner at Glin (Leucojum ‘Gravetye Giant’). It is tall and tough, relishing our damp conditions, and competing manfully with the long grass and spreading around like mad. They start to come out here in late February and carry on for weeks and weeks into late April.
I have to mention the very cheering early daffs — Narcissus ‘February Gold’ and the mini ‘Tête-à-tête’, so good for tree circles. Some of my clients claim they don’t like the brassy bright yellow — in which case, the hill at Glin that lights up with a wash of delicate pale yellow Narcissus lobularis in March is for them. The bulbs were sent to my great-grandmother from Tresco in the Scilly Isles over a hundred years ago and have been increasing ever since.
Other good pale varieties include the mini Narcissus ‘W.P. Milner’ and the taller aristocratic beauty ‘Thalia’, which flowers a bit later on. The latest in the unfolding pageant is the ‘Pheasant’s Eye’ narcissus, which looks good planted with blue camassia in the long grass in May. Forget about the Roy family — this is the succession you really need to watch!
All the dark winter, I have been putting off jobs — but no longer! The days are stretching out; the quality of the light is changing. I am like the kid in the ’70s Bisto Gravy ad sniffing the air, following my nose around a corner until I collide with that prickly character, the mahonia. It’s yellow starfish-like flowers exude wonderful wafts of lily-of-the-valley.
I feel a bit like the badger who has just come out of hibernation. I know he has emerged, as he hungrily digs up the choicest bulbs from under the Killarney oak each year, leaving gougings: moss and debris, flung about carelessly. I survey the scene with dismay — it’s like coming across the chaotic remnants of a teenage party when the culprits have long disappeared.
This is the time when I do most of the moving about of trees and plants — digging them up, moving them to better spots, regrouping things. The wonder of gardens is that mistakes are never permanent and can be easily rectified (unlike houses, when one can be stuck with an unfortunate colour choice for years). Then I mulch the plantings obsessively. The sight of bare soil packed down hard by long winter rains is so bleak and disheartening.
Once that soft blanket of mulch is spread around and forked over, worms begin to bring it down, the roots have room to breathe, and everything starts to move.
Later the mulch will suppress the weeds. Whether it’s homemade compost, organic green waste in bags from a local nursery, a load of mushroom compost or, best of all, well-rotted horse manure, your plants will have a wonderful head start.
March is the time to plan and dream of what is to come. Veg and favourite cut flower seeds are being gathered in the greenhouse — their crinkly packets held together with rubber bands — scented stocks, sweet William, nicotiana, cornflowers, cosmos for the border. At the same time, I pinch out the pelargoniums to make sure they get bushy for planting out in pots in May — and take the leaves down to eat with poached forced rhubarb, pale pink and tender. I am quite as happy as that badger.
• Plant summer-flowering bulbs.
• Prune out any wind-damaged branches on trees and shrubs.
• Deadhead spring flowers and any remaining winter bedding so they don’t set seed.
• Check new shoots for aphids and remove.
• Sow hardy annuals outdoors, including nasturtiums and poppies.
• Tidy borders and remove established and newly germinating weeds (do not throw the weed seedlings into your compost heap, as they may come back to haunt you when compost is applied to the garden).
• Plant faded forced bulbs out in the garden for blooms next year.
• Place bug boxes or bundles of hollow stems in sheltered corners, where insects can lay their eggs. Gardens need insects. They are useful in many ways: vital workers when it comes to decomposition and giving us nutrient-rich soil; essential for pollinating flowering plants and crops; predators to other insects like aphids, and an important source of food for other animals like birds and bats.
• Keep putting out food for garden birds, as the breeding season gets under way.
• As the days get warmer and the garden starts to blossom, slugs will emerge and can wreak havoc on the new shoots. In controlling them, use natural solutions rather than pesticides. Beer traps are effective; physical barriers such as coffee grounds and sawdust will also have a deterrent effect. Or encourage natural slug predators, like birds and hedgehogs, as well as nematodes (which can be bought from garden centres).
Don't miss your Spring Gardening booklets, free in this weekend's Irish Independent on Saturday and the Sunday Independent, with expert advice on everything from what to plant for all types of gardens, how to entertain outdoors, how to get the kids involved, and plenty more.