Monthly Archives: November 2014

Three things to do in your garden right now

Grasses, Teasel: Plants that look great winter

Grasses, Teasel: Think ahead to plants that might look great in winter. And then don’t cut them back.

Well, these are three things I am doing at least…

1. Pruning Laurels into beautiful trees.

Laurels are like a great song played ad nauseum. They are up there in the top 3 hedging shrubs which makes them useful and practical but to most people’s eyes: common, boring and ugly. However, I would beg to differ.

I think Laurels actually have beautiful shape when given a chance. I use them as foils in the garden – an evergreen with a lush, large leaf to offset more delicate plants, frame views and block things like telephone poles, nosy neighbors’ windows and the like.

How to do it: Firstly, let it grow a bit. If you have just planted it don’t prune just yet. I have waited two seasons for the ones I pruned today to grow on a bit. If they are mature…get pruning. The trick is to clear the stems up to 2′-3′ from the base. Make them more tree like, thin them out a bit. Their trunks are beautiful – smooth, twisting, curving – so show them off a bit. Keep in mind what is behind them though. If it’s something ugly like a block wall make sure you have a back up plant like a good sturdy shrub or a climber on the wall. Otherwise, you end up just showing off a block wall. Although in some places they would just call that retro-urban.

And if you mess it up, don’t worry they grow back quickly.

2. Making leaf mold

Okay, this is clearly nothing new or momentous but I have finally decided it is time. And this is because every time I clean up old leaves that have been let sit, even just for a couple of weeks, the bottom layer is so crumbly and beautiful and black AND there are always earthworms in there. So I am making it official now and making my own leaf mold because anything that black and crumbly and beautiful has to be good for the garden.

How to do it: There are loads of articles out there on how to make leaf mold. I have seen it happen on a curbside with no one doing anything so really I am just going to pile my leaves in a dark, dank corner of the garden and wait. But for those who want to be a bit more pro-active, it depends on how much space you have because leaf mold can take up to a year to happen depending on moisture levels.

Plenty space: if you have a hidden corner, shady, damp (is behind a shed where runoff from the roof soaks it) that would be ideal. Just pile your leaves and leaf them there. You can turn them with a pitchfork to make it all happen a little more quickly. If you like things a bit tidier use a net bag or burlap bag and stuff the leaves into those. You can flip the bags occasionally to help it along.

Caught for space? Make a  3’x3′ cage out of stakes and chicken wire (or be creative and make it beautiful) and pile them in there.

Tips: to make your leaf mold happen faster try and keep it damp and run it over with a lawn mower to get the pieces smaller before you start (decompose quicker).

Use like compost. It’s rich so you can be sparing.

3. I am not cutting my ornamental grasses

I LOVE this time of year in the garden: I can’t remember a single name of  a plant and that’s okay, I don’t have to worry and wonder whether the slugs will get these plants or not, it’s too late. This time of year, all is eaten and all is forgotten, I just want to cut. I want to cut everything down and make it nice and tidy and autumnal. Ready for Spring and new growth to happen uninhibited by old branches and stalks. BUT, as I get my Edward Scissorhands momentum going with the pruners I am constantly reminding myself how beautiful ornamental grasses look in January with frost and morning winter sun lighting them up from behind.

I really want to cut them. And you can, it’s fine to cut them down this time of year if you would like (I am talking Miscanthus, Calamagrostis, Stipa..most grasses) but if they have their shape still and haven’t been too wind beaten then leave them… they are going to really come into their own in a couple months. I promise.


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A Darwinian approach to sustainable gardening

A bit Native a bit Ornamental all in the name of Sustainable GardeningSustainability is a tough word these days (and actually always has been). Its definition is convoluted and abstract and our ability to monitor our attempts at being sustainable is difficult as the timescale when dealing with the natural world is so long.

I think about sustainability quite a bit, usually as a means of making myself feel guilty about luxury/waste/travel or just about anything in these modern times we live in.

But specifically, I was thinking about gardening. I was thinking about how I have been spoiled by my gardening in Ireland as, almost despite what I do or don’t do, things grow.

I have been reflecting on this quite a bit because I have been working on a couple of garden projects in the States as well and at this time of year, I see the buzz of landscaper activity fertilizing and weeding and pruning and composting and getting rid of leaves. I watch all this as I carefully distribute the fallen leaves more evenly over my client’s garden, as weed suppressant and  natural fertilizer. I consider this as I look into my gardening trug – devoid of any fertilizers, fungicides, weedkiller.

And I realize my approach to garden maintenance has been one more influenced by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution than say George Martin’s Game of Thrones. I look at the garden as a lesson in evolution, not world domination.

How would Nature do it? Some might call it Laissez Faire. But I think it is more Darwinian in approach. Allowing and acknowledging the evolution of a garden. The way it would work if we just let it be. Even though we don’t.

For example, leaving some leaves behind to compost away and replenish soil nutrients.

Or, for example, accepting that no amount of fertilizer/bug killer/fungicide/soil amendment is going to make that rose grow there. It’s okay. I know for some people growing roses or growing anything where it’s not meant to be brings ultimate satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment but not for me. I think the garden should be an endless experiment in understanding nature. Not an endless, heartbreaking penitentiary of man’s domination over Nature (ie most lawn care).

I came across two articles this week, one old and one new, that provided excellent inspiration both in theory and in practice if you are pondering a sustainable garden.

The first is Steve Martino’s blog post on sustainability in the garden. My favorite line is:

In order for a beautiful garden to also be significant it needs to accommodate the natural environment besides responding to the client’s needs and conditions.

My second favorite quote from Martino summarized well in an interview here is:

‘Our landscapes are like terminally ill patients. They are tethered to IVs and monitors and need constant attention to keep them alive. If someone pulls the plug, the garden will die. The only way to break out this situation is to use native plants. They have less of a demand for water and fertilizer, which is better spent on food crops. My definition of sustainability has always been very simple: when the power or water is shut off, your garden should not die.’

While Martino’s exact definition of sustainability isn’t applicable to Ireland, the driving theory is: If we stopped putting chemicals into and onto our gardens, they shouldn’t die.

So, if you stop using slug pellets and your plants die – then you should use a different plant. Or if you stop spraying your roses with fungicide and they die, then you should try a different plant.

For me, it is pretty straightforward, if you have to work to apply much more than compost, seaweed and a bit of elbow grease weeding, pruning and raking leaves than it is not sustainable.

My own Darwinian rules of thumb for garden maintenance are:

If it’s yellow, your soil needs some manure and seaweed

If it’s an acid loving plant and it’s not thriving, your soil is not acidic and don’t try and grow acid-loving plants

Leave some leaves, they are nature’s fertilizer

If you have a fungus: see what concoctions you can put together using benign ingredients and if you can’t solve it, it’s really just tough luck. Let the garden evolve.

If the bugs are getting to it: if it’s the leaves you can try some non-toxic soap sprays and you can also just let it be until next year. If the bugs are getting the roots, try nematodes or other beneficial predators first, second – potting it up and saving it for next year or moving it to another location and if none of those work…give up on that plant.



Martino is a big believer in using Native plants which I think, in the context of the landscape he lives and works in, it is probably the best way to garden sustainably. In Ireland, I think we can be more lenient as the climate supports all kinds of natives and ornamentals without significant inputs. Natives are always an important part of a garden for me but by no means the only plants that will thrive sustainably. Which brings me to the second article I found in this months Self Build magazine by Fiann O’Nuillainn.

Fiann provides some excellent, practical tips on gardening sustainably my favorite being:

‘Sustainable gardening is all about looking after that system’

That system being what Fiann calls the ‘ecoweb’ or network of all organisms, plants and resources in the garden. If you want to garden sustainably, you have to look at the bigger picture and acknowledge how each element of your garden is related to the next. That resonates with me and I think is a good guiding principle

Fiann provides good practical tips on how to do that, one of which is planting for biodiversity and pollinators ,which in my opinion is one of the best reasons to incorporate any and all non-invasive plants that we can grow in Ireland.

For Irish gardeners, I have to say, it is this mix of exotic and wonderful ornamentals that can be grown in Ireland that make it so exciting and fascinating.

Which brings me to my last inspirational quote on gardens and which highlights the underpinning of a sustainable garden that meets the client’s needs while providing for the natural world:

Gardens are an enduring concept. They reflect our ideas and beliefs about our relationship with nature and gardens provide the space to experience this relationship. This has been true throughout history.

                                                                                                                                                                            – Steve Martino

So, sustainable gardening to me is a matter of balancing the creation of outdoor spaces that we love being in with creating outdoor spaces that will thrive in a way that reflects their environment, whether we are there to enjoy them or not.

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