The Raven’s Eye

The Raven’s Eye is a gardening column that appears every two weeks in the Cobh News. https://greatislandmedia.com/cobh-news/

23-6-2020

The Raven’s Eye – Random Notes on Gardening

Avid readers of Cobh News may have noticed photos and a video of a meadow mowed by scythe recently. What is that somewhat intimidating tool with the hard-to-pronounce name? Why would anyone use it these days, when we have strimmers and mowers?

The scythe consists of a handle (called the snath) and a curved blade. The blade has a very sharp edge which slices through the stalks of vegetation, thereby cutting them down. In order to keep the edge sharp, it has to be peened (using a hammer and anvil or a peening jig) and then honed by various whetstones regularly.

Before mowers, strimmers and harvesting machines were invented and made widely available, mowing of grass, clearing of weeds and reaping of grain was done by scythe. It is still used on difficult terrain or where petrol isn’t available or affordable.

In recent years, there has been increased interest in the scythe in Ireland, the UK and across the continent. Courses are being offered, people meet for mowing events and haymaking camps or to have their skills challenged in national and international competitions.

What is it about the scythe that makes it so appealing?

First of all, we do need to keep traditional skills alive. Many of our ancestors would have known what a scythe was and how to use it. Some of our grandparents would have used a scythe. Few of our parents would have. If we don’t keep the skill alive and active, it will die out and be lost.

Second, the scythe is an environment friendly tool. As we become more and more aware, fossil fuels are running low and their use causes air and noise pollution. Mowing by scythe is quiet and uses no fossil fuels whatsoever. All you need is muscle grease.

Which leads us to reason number three: Scything is good exercise. A good course will teach you how to adjust the handgrips according to your body size, as well as good posture and smooth mowing movements. With the right set-up and plenty of practice, mowing becomes a calming exercise for both body and mind. Working outdoors, following a steady rhythm, listening to birdsong, smelling the scent of summer is quite different from mowing with a noisy, smelly machine, face, ears and body covered in protective gear.

Reason four: The scythe is a lot more wildlife friendly than mowers and strimmers. No noise nor smell nor machine vibration to upset wildlife. It’s easy to mow around wildlife friendly plants. There is less disturbance of habitats. The scythe can also be used to mow wildflower meadows or road verges once or twice a year. Wildflower meadows (or even small areas of wildflowers) are vital for birds, bees and other pollinating insects.

Reason five: Learning to scythe is a wild, exciting and romantic experience!

As a professional gardener, I obviously appreciate all tools that enable me do get my work done, including strimmers and mowers. Different tools are best suited for different gardens. However, looking at your garden, think about whether or not mowing by scythe might be an option for you. It’s an inexpensive tool that doesn’t take up much space in the shed. It does require regular maintenance, but most if not all of that can be done at home and can, with practice, become an exciting part of the scything adventure.

Hands-on section:

– To learn more about the scythe, look up http://scytheassociation.org/. This site also shows where and when courses are being held.

– The facebook group Scythe Association (Britain & Ireland) is a friendly and diverse group of people interested in scything. You can join without having any previous scything experience. It’s a great place to learn the lingo, exchange information, find advice, ask questions and learn from other people’s experience.

– Steve Tomlin’s book ‘Learn to Scythe’ is a helpful manual which also shows how scything is suitable for a wide range of people, independent of gender, age, skin colour or background.

9-6-2020

The Raven’s Eye – Random Notes on Gardening

Welcome June, beautiful month of flowers, berries, sunshine, long days, bright evenings, warmth and summer solstice.

There is plenty to do in the garden, and almost everything wants to be done at the same time. Watering and weeding are on-going delights, mowing happens every two weeks, edging maybe every four weeks. Fruit can be thinned out for a higher quality crop. Sweet Peas and other climbers need tying in for support regularly. Flowers and vegetable crops want to be checked, tended to and – admired!

Admiring is one of the most important tasks in the garden. It’s also one of the easiest. Make yourself a cup of tea, step outside and admire. Your garden (or window box or the tree on the street) and yourself will thrive on it.

June is one of the best months. An action-packed time, but with an outlook to a somewhat steadier pace in July and August.

As I do my day-time work and volunteer on some evenings, I almost forget the country is still in lockdown. The easing of restrictions grants quite a sense of freedom, and out in the countryside the lockdown isn’t all that visible. I know things have changed dramatically, but I just keep going. I guess I’m experiencing a form of denial. Denial is something I’m not at all keen on. It seems dangerous to me. I hope my hands-in-the-dirt work and the progression of nature through summer will let me catch up soon.

One task in the garden:

When I grow plants from seed, I transplant them carefully once they’ve reached a good size or have outgrown their container. First, I prepare the new container, say, a plant tray with individual sections. I fill the tray evenly with compost, making sure all the corners are filled out. I firm down the compost and add a bit more. Second, I use a stick or a pencil to lift one seedling at a time out of its seed tray. I hold the seedling by its leaves and lift out as much compost and roots as possible. I then use the stick to make a hole in the compost in the new container and set the seedling carefully into the hole. I firm down the compost around the seedling. Once the entire tray is done, I add a plant label with date and plant name. Third, I water the seedlings and add organic slug pellets. Last, I place them in a sheltered location, protecting them from cold, wind and too much direct sunlight until they have settled in and start growing.

Hands-on section: Watering

– Water early in the morning or in the evening. Watering during the day lets a lot of water evaporate before it can reach the plant roots.

– Water evenly. In a square border or square window box or raised bed, make sure you water the edges and corners as well as the centre of the border.

– Move the hose or watering can slightly to and fro while watering. This helps to distribute water evenly and avoids leaf damage and soil erosion.

– Water only as much as necessary. Most plants are quite resilient and can stretch their roots to find water deeper down in the ground.

– Watering is most important after planting in order to settle plants in. Once plants are established in the ground, they can deal with periods of dry weather on their own.

– Collect rain water and some household water. Conserve water. It’s precious.

26-5-2020

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.

12-5-2020

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.

28-4-2020

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.