December 2, 2012

Deck the halls with boughs of Holly – Christmas Wreath Workshop

by Ciaran Burke


Not just holly! Laurel, redwood, ferns, hawthorn, spruce, cotton lavender, ivy, heather, artichokes, alder, willow, spruce and many, many more.

Getting it just right....

Getting it just right….

Take a sprig of laurel, no ordinary laurel, Otto Luyken’s low growing one. Add a spray of a bronze  leaved conifer wearing its winter clothes, darkened from summer green, Microbiota decussata from Vladivostok. A spruce shoot or two from the felled trees from behind the house and a plump bunch of creamy green flower buds from the fragrant spring flowering Skimmia x confusa ‘Kew Green’. Tied with tender care and lovingly crafted into a Christmas wreath. Take a break, sip some hot glögi, a Finnish Christmas punch, have a nibble on a mince pie or Tunisian orange cake and back to work. Creativity filled the air, mingling with the warm chatter and yummy smell of home baked cakes. Just the way a Christmas Wreath workshop should be.

A finished wreath

A finished wreath

This was the first workshop to take place in our newly built classroom. Over the last two weeks my Dad and myself have been busy hammering and sawing. The wooden building had been installed, it was our job to insulate the structure, wire it for electricity and finish off the inside with tounged and grooved wood panelling. We had a deadline to meet. 1st of December and Hanna’s Christmas wreath workshop.  We finished on time, ahead of time, last Thursday we had our first class, the RHS Level 2 course took place there, and on Friday a Christmas tree was added, decorated with lights and Hanna’s advent wreath was placed on the table. We were ready.

Sequoia sempervirens 'Adpressa'

Sequoia sempervirens ‘Adpressa’

The workshop was about making Christmas wreaths, using plant material from the garden and hedgerow, there were also cakes and Christmas punch, glögi a Finnish spiced grape drink. Homemade mince pies started the day with tea and coffee, later there was cranberry and orange tart, Tunisian orange cake and Finnish style Christmas pastries filled with delicious prune jam. Our classroom was filled with happiness, a vibrant buzz and by the end of the day everybody had created a beautiful Christmas wreath to bring home with them. Thank you to all the wreath makers for making this a memorable 1st of December and bringing good cheer to our classroom.

Links to recipes for cakes and glögi

Cakes for the workshop

Cakes for the workshop


In the gallery below are photos from our christmas wreath workshop and also some photos of some of the plants that were used in the making of the wreaths.







November 17, 2012

National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin, November 17th 2012

by Ciaran Burke

A beautiful sunny day in the National Botanic Gardens. I was there with students today. Lots of nice autumnal colour, some flowers and fruits too.

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October 11, 2012

The New Growth Project – The Seed is Growing…

by Ciaran Burke

The days can be long. The days can be lonely, boring, and hopeless. It is a different world when you are unemployed, time moves slower, shops are more expensive, the cloud has no silver edge.

One afternoon in January I had an idea. This happens sometimes, especially when I garden. Digging a vegetable bed, pulling some weeds or chopping brambles, it gives you time to think. Often a simple solution springs from the earth as you tug at a dock root, sometimes the ideas are fantasy, but this idea was good, it was something new, something I had to do. It would involve doing something for nothing, something for someone, something with our garden. It was only the start of an idea, but it was growing fast. I did not know how it would be when fully formed, I had to let it grow before I could tell my wife.

That was a Sunday. The following Friday I was driving to Castlebar when I got a call. I had just parked at a garden centre and I answered the phone, my wife Hanna had an idea! During her lunch, she had been watching Sinead O’ Shea’s documentary about Ireland, the collapse of the Irish economy and its social effects, depressing stuff. But it planted an idea in her mind, the same idea that sprung from the earth and into my head the previous Sunday, The New Growth Project.

The idea had not yet got its name but basically we had the same starting point. Why not give a course in our garden, a couple of days a week, for a small group of people who are unemployed. Teach them about gardening, how to grow food, propagate plants and care for a garden, simple.

When I got home we talked about our shared idea: how we would do it? Two days each week, use the garden as a classroom. Would we get funding? Maybe, maybe not, but we would do it anyway. We gave it a name, I envisaged a logo, Hanna gave it form. We printed posters, we stuck them in shops, we e-mailed newspapers, one of them responded. We talked about it to our friends, we got encouragement. The applications came in, too many, we could only take four people. Telling unlucky applicants the bad news was hard. Then on a wet Tuesday morning at the start of March we welcomed our first four participants on The New Growth Project. Every Tuesday and Wednesday for the next twelve weeks they learnt how to sow seeds, prick out seedlings, plant plants, prune plants, move plants, about plants to eat, plants to weed, plants to admire. We studied flower structures, examined leaves and dissected seeds. We talked, we solved problems of the world, we had many laughs.

“I will miss the course next week”, he said on the last day. 9 months unemployed, the hardest part was not the lack of money but the lack of worth, the nothingness that fills the day, but now he had his garden to do. Although he would miss the course, he had been lifted by the experience, had made new friends, he could see breaks in the clouds. Sunny days will come, we are starting small but we are going to grow. Our hopes for the future; to develop further training programmes, to provide employment through social initiatives, to grow as individuals and help people to learn skills that enhance their chances of finding work.

Gardening is a cure, my grandfather often said, “the answer is in the earth”. From the cold dark earth in Spring, new shoots emerge seeking light from the sky, warmth from the sun, and can grow into beautiful things. Sharing our garden, having people come to learn, has brought a great reward for us. A positive energy, an inspiration, a purpose for our place. Our one acre plot down a country lane is now not just our garden, it is The New Growth Project.

Yesterday we started our third course of The New Growth Project with six new participants. We recently received a grant of €1,500 from Mayo County Council through the Local Agenda 21, which will help us to continue running the project. The next plan is to build a shed which we can use as a classroom, to raise the money for it and source cheap, free or recycled materials.

Noel, one of the participants on our first course of The New Growth Project told us about his experiences on the course one sunny day in March, watch the video

See what a typical week on The New Growth Project course involves

More information about The New Growth Project

The documentary “Collapse of the Celtic Tiger” by Sinead O’Shea can be viewed on the Al Jazeera English Webpage LINK

October 4, 2012

Autumn Fire – early autumnal morning in our garden

by Ciaran Burke


A cool start, a foggy dawn. The mellow light tinted the milky haze of fog rising from the earth, too beautiful for even the wind to disturb. The usual west of Ireland wind stayed respectfully still and silent. As the sun sleepily woke and rose over the horizon the fog dispersed to the air, leaving a residue of pearl droplets over the grass and foliage. In the most sheltered corners the grass crunched, a frost beneath my feet. A perfect morning to enjoy the autumnal splendour, late flowering Helianthus, H. ‘Miss Mellish and H’ Lemon Queen’, sun flower relatives facing to the east, awaiting the sun, helios worshippers waiting for the apparition of a sunny morning.

Helianthus ‘Miss Mellish’

Tilia henryana in the morning light

White berries of Sorbus koeheniana, dripping  wet pearls, precious beauties. Cercidiphyllum japonicum, its leaves scenting the air with burnt sugar aromas and Aronia shrubs burning with beauty.  Then arriving through the kitchen door, fresh scones steaming, straight from the oven… you cant start a day much better than that!

Sorbus koeheneana berries

Aronia arbutifolia

Cercidiphyllum japonicum

Home made scones

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May 19, 2012

The Magician and the Glasnevin Potato Vine – Botanic Gardens Dublin May 2012

by Ciaran Burke


It should be warm, warmer than today. I am not under any illusion, I do not expect the sun to shine every day, this is Ireland, but this is May, it should not be freezing!

I met a group of my students this morning in the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin Dublin, one of our monthly meetings. The sky stayed grey all day and the temperatures remained low. It was sort of surreal to see the beautiful tree peony Paeonia rockii ‘He Ping Lian’ in bloom with its heady scent, but to be freezing cold. Despite the less than comfortable weather we brazed the elements, a bunch of hardy perennials that we are and enjoyed some of the beauty that the botanic gardens always has to share. The copper beach, the floriferous Deutzia and Weigela shrubs, the dainty white bracts of the handkercief tree, Davidia involucrata, all beautiful.

Two of Glasnevin’s own gems were looking particularly fine in the cold; Solanum crispum ‘Glasnevin’ and Deutzia purpurascens ‘Alpine Magician’. The former is the better j=known plant, a scranbling shrub best when trained to support against a wall, at the side of the visitor centre it covers a large portion of red brick wall. It is the best selection of the species, a relative to the spud which is Solanum tuberosum. Native of South America. The ‘Glasnevin’ cultivar is hardier than the species and much more floriferous. It is a vigorous large growing plant that will flower throughout the summer.





Deutzia purpurascens ‘Alpine Magician’ was named by Charles Nelson who was botanist at the gardens while I was a student there. It was named by him in reference and reverence to Reginald Farrer the great plant hunter and alpine gardener. This particular plant was grown from seed that was collected by farrer in Burma. It is a graceful shrub about 2 metres high and covered in clusters of pink tinged white flowers with red centres. A hardy and floriferous deciduous shrub that is seldom seen in garden centres and nurseries, which is ashame. Luckily there is a fine specimen growing in the woodland garden at Glasnevin for everyone to admire.

There were many beautiful sights to admire in the gardens, I took some photos with my phone and here they are for you to enjoy too…

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