The Raven’s Eye

The Raven’s Eye is a gardening column that appears every two weeks in the Cobh News.


The Raven’s Eye – Random Notes on Gardening

Aphrodite’s Gardens is back in action! Work wear is drying on the washing line, secateurs await sharpening after major activity, skin of hands is enjoying a day of rest and healing after being torn to shreds by dry earth and thorny hedges. I realize I haven’t had a seven-week-break from work for many years.

It’s good to be back. I feel immensely privileged to be out working while many, many others are still cooped up at home.

While I knew things wouldn’t be the same as before, it’s still surprising to actually experience the change. People look slightly different. The general mood is subdued. Gardens have thrived as if fast-forwarded.

One of my fears had been that, after long weeks of reduced physical activity, I might struggle to work all the hours I had lined up. Thankfully, that side of things went well. It’s refreshing to be tired after a week of real down-to-earth work instead of being exhausted by lockdown fatigue. Other things aren’t going so smoothly yet. It takes a moment to remember how to tackle familiar tasks and approach well-known problems. Words escape me or come to mind in my native language first before I find the English term. Talking to clients after weeks of isolation takes getting used to.

The usual flow of activity has been disturbed. How long will it take to build up momentum?

One task in the garden:

To keep Hydrangeas bushy and pretty, I cut out the dead flower heads. While one might be tempted to do this early in the year, it’s best to hold back until the worst threat of frost has passed, usually towards mid-April. The new growth (green and juicy) is easily visible then. I cut out all dead flower heads and dead stems (grey and dry) and check shoots that have grown leggy. If the plant has many shoots, I cut the leggy ones back to a healthy, strong set of buds or even all the way to the ground. If the entire plant is leggy and has only a few shoots, I cut most shoots back a bit, to a healthy set of buds, and try to restore and encourage it over the next few years.

Hands-on section: Weeds!

The end of May and early June are a good time for weed management. Most planting of seeds, vegetables, flowers, shrubs and trees has been done by now. To protect newly planted and established plants and to make gardens look tidy, we pull out or dig up or hoe plants that showed up of their own accord and that we’re not so keen on.

Part of the secret of weeding is to get it done at the right time.

  • Start when weeds are easy to tell from cultivated plants and when they have grown to a size that’s easy to handle.
  • Let some of the weeds flower. While they’re weeds to us, they’re also wildflowers and valuable sources of food for bees and other pollinating insects.
  • Towards the end of flowering, be quick and remove weeds before they go to seed. This will save you a lot of trouble in future.


The Raven’s Eye – Random Notes on Gardening

While lockdown continues, nature will not be held back. It’s a time of rapid unfolding and abundance.

Going for the same walk almost every day is a great opportunity to watch the progress of individual plants. No matter whether you know a lot or very little about nature, choose one plant (or a few) on your walk and visit regularly, watching for small developments every time you call by.

Has the size of the leaves changed? Is the colour still the same as yesterday? Yes, most leaves are green… but has there been a change in hue? What about flowers? Are they in bud? Have they opened? Have they gone over? What happens next? If there are more plants of the same kind, are they all behaving the same way?

Remember what we learned last time? Plants support us. Every time you visit your chosen plant, see how the plant does that. It supplies you with oxygen, beauty and a calm sense of continuing change.

One task in the garden:

In order to make a square plant bed for courgette plants, I screwed a few planks of timber together and filled the bottom with old cardboard. The cardboard will suppress weeds and keep moisture in. Then I dug out last year’s compost bin and tipped the usable compost into the new plant bed. The next step will be to add a layer of peat free multipurpose compost and then, once the expected cold nights have passed, plant the courgette plants. For extra shelter in an exposed area and to keep out animals with a digging habit, I will cover the plant bed with fine netting.

How to read a seed pack:

1) Never mind the bit at the top about hand and fruit scaring and parthenocarpic pollination. The plant itself will take care of that.

2) The colourful little table tells you the right time to sow seeds either indoors (in a glasshouse or on a windowsill) or outdoors (in the garden) and when to expect your harvest. In this example, you sow seeds indoors from beginning of April to mid-June or outdoors from mid-May to the end of June. Depending on when you sowed the seeds, you can expect to harvest from June to October.

3) Plant spacing tells you how far apart to plant the seedlings in the vegetable bed. In this example, 90cm in between plants in a row and 90cm between rows.

4) All the other small print is fairly self-explanatory, but do not hesitate to ask if you’re not sure about something.

5) The bottom of the pack tells you the ‘best before’ date. Most seeds remain alive for many years if stored carefully. However, the ‘best before’ date gives you an idea for storage time.

6) The approximate number of seeds can vary greatly. Courgette seeds are sold in small numbers, as many gardens only have space for one or two plants, and those one or two plants can produce an abundant supply of courgettes. Other seeds, like Lobelia, are sold in larger quantities (1000 seeds or more). You don’t need to sow all the seeds in one go. Just sow a few and keep the rest in the seed pack. We’ll talk about seed storage another time.

7) Do not rip apart or throw away the seed pack. You will need it later.

I invite you to ask your gardening questions in the comments section. All levels of skill and knowledge (or lack thereof) welcome.


The Raven’s Eye – Random Notes on Gardening

Like many of us, I’m cooped up at home in lockdown. I’m a professional gardener, so my work is ‘non-essential’. Technically, I could work without meeting any of my clients in person. However, I’m staying home. One less car on the road, one less person out and about, one less potential source of spreading infection.

I have to admit, the verdict ‘non-essential’ hit me hard. It’s true under the current circumstances, of course. Gardening doesn’t provide front-line medical care. It’s not social work; it’s not looking after people in need. It’s not farming nor major food production.

Can I live with the idea that my work is non-essential? It’s not easy, but yes, I can.

What is essential, though, is nature. Plants are not a luxury; they are a necessity.

No plants, no food. OK, that’s obvious, even for those of us who don’t eat their greens.

Next: no plants, no clothes. Let that sink in for a moment… yeah, I know. A disconcerting thought. Even leather, wool and artificial fibres require plants somewhere in the production process.

And here’s an even more disconcerting thought: no plants, no breath.

Plants supply us with oxygen. They, too, breathe. In simplified terms: humans breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Plants breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out – oxygen!

Plants enable us to live, not the other way round.

My gardening advice for today:

While you’re stuck in lockdown, try to keep in touch with nature. In your garden, on your balcony, on your daily walks, by tending to your house-plant, and by looking out your window. Nature is quietly providing you with something essential 24 hours a day.

Hands-on section:

As this is a gardening column, readers might expect the usual how-to and when-to gardening advice. So here it is, briefly:

– Grow vegetables and flowers from seed now. Buy some packets of seeds. Radish, lettuce and sunflowers are easy to grow. Tomatoes, courgettes, sweet peas etc. require more care. Some plants, like asparagus, are somewhat challenging. In all cases, read and follow the valuable info on the seed packets.

– Dead-head Hydrangeas now. Dead-heading in gardening is not as brutal as it sounds. It means: cut off last year’s dried out flower heads.

– Hold back a week or two before you plant tender bedding plants like Petunia or Pelargonium (commonly known as ‘geraniums’).

– Hold back a lot on lawn cutting. A few daisies and dandelions won’t kill you but will keep bees and other pollinating insects alive.

I invite you to ask your gardening questions in the comments section. All levels of skill and knowledge (or lack thereof) welcome.