Posts tagged ‘plants’

January 24, 2014

Getting in touch with your inner designer!

by Ciaran Burke

Carefully placed objects can enhance the garden experience

It is brown, barely visible, one has to look closely and bend down to examine the small flowers, thin and sinuous, like a dark rodent tail, almost hidden by the foliage. I think it is fabulous, Asarum probiscidum. The green flowers of Primula ‘Francisca’, ruffled and clustered on short stalks, pretty, not showy. Snowdrops, Galanthus sp., imagine a garden with fifty different kinds, a gardener proud of the collection. This is the world of the plant enthusiast. We plant people can be terribly nerdish, true anoraks walking around a garden on a wet February afternoon, bending to admire the subtle differences between one snowdrop and another. We “ooh: and “aah” at the green markings, only visible when viewed from beneath the white skirt of petals. Perhaps we are a bit odd.

Living in Ireland, we have the opportunity to grow a wide range of plants. The winter air is warmed, most years, by the Gulf Stream. Our island is spared from the harshest cold by our enclosure of ocean. The rain that we all complain so much about, waters our plants. Our gardens do not really stop during the year, even in the depths of winter there are plants in growth, flowers blooming, there are fruits and foliage to admire.
Not everyone can get as excited as me about the mouse-like blooms of Asarum probiscidum, many will think snow drop fanciers are a little bit mad and very sad. That is okay. A garden is more than a collection of plants. It is not just a cabinet to display the prizes of the collector: the freaks, the beautiful, the rare and expensive.

Gardens can fulfill various functions and fancies. It can be a picture of beauty, a lively composition of colour, an outdoor room to entertain and live. It is also a sanctuary for the mind, a rest for the tired body, a rejuvenator of the spirit. Gardens can provide vegetables for the kitchen pot, fruits for the dining room table. Gardens are places to interact, with nature and each other.

Experience is essential, it makes us what we are, gives us life. The space around our homes is not just a picture, framed by the windowpane, viewed from a patio door, glanced at while putting out the bin.
Raindrops held like jewels hanging from a flower, the smell of fresh cut grass, the aroma of a crushed lavender sprig. The quiet calm of an autumn morning, the golden glow of a summer’s evening doused in sweet scents, the murky winter morning shrouded in fog, coated in frost; moments of magic, unique and sometimes fleeting. The view, the smell, the feel, they create atmosphere; we live the experience and cherish the memory.

Strolling through a beautiful garden we admire many things; the flowers, the colours, perhaps the perfume on the air. A path might lead us to a destination, but it also might guide our sight. We might be blissfully unaware that our gaze moved slowly along the airy flower heads of lady’s mantle that complemented the other yellow blooms. A golden foliaged conifer; its placement provided the structural form and resting place for the eye as the path curved way from view, invited us to explore.

Sitting on a stone bench, the air is quiet except for the rustle of leaves and the hum from insects. Comfortable and secure, restful and serene we take for granted the beauty of the scene, the experience of escape. The placement of the seat in this garden room is no accident. The height of the enclosure, the light that enters, the amount of space and uncluttered feel are elements that make this place so perfect.
If the hedges were any higher, our seat would be darker. If the opening to the path was narrower we might feel imprisoned. The hedge is high enough to make us feel private, low enough to allow us to see the sky, a protective boundary to keep the world out but not to incarcerate. Here in the haven, the degree of our enclosure, how the hedge surrounds the space and leaves a gap for entrance and exit, is a comforting hug not a tight grasp.
Beneath our feet is gravel, light, grey and rounded, a similar colour to the stone bench on which we sit. Harmony of the materials and their colour rests our senses, provides comfort. The colours around us are predominantly green, the soothing shade that relaxes our eyes. But if is not dull, not boring. Some soft pastel shades, a billowing catmint, a tall purple verbena and arching Dierama waves its angel fishing rod flowers above the stones in the slight breeze. The green leaves are not all identical; there are soft ferns in the shade and wide hosta leaves and shapely lady’s mantels topped with frothy soft yellow flowers. A quiet combination of foliage that arouses an interest but does not impose, and colour blends that recede to a respectful distance; soothing and pacifying.

Garden path

Garden path

Leaving the serenity of the secluded seat we walk to the open borders. We are invigorated by the frenzy of colour that fills each facing bed separated by the fine lawn. Burning bright Crocosmia masoniorum blazes with bright orange Helenium autumnale and golden Rudbeckia. The sight is lively and inspiring.

We take for granted the depth of the borders, how each one mirrors the other in size and shape. They are deep enough to accommodate the tall plants, separated by a lawn of good proportion so that we can admire their show along their entire lengths; excellent proportion. The balance either side is subtle, almost imperceptible, yet if it is not right we notice.
The path between the borders leads us to a water feature, this garden room enclosed by the plain backdrop of soft textured yew hedges. The borders appear longer than they actually are. The designer has played with the perspective, the line are not quite parallel. The colours are chosen and graded, hot colours as we enter gradually cool; the reds and oranges mellow to yellow, mauves cool to soft shades of pastel pink and wispy hues of palest blue. The colour gradient emphasizes the fact that the hot reds jump into out vision while soft pastels move away, drifting to the distance. The result, the border seems longer that it is.

The water feature at the end is carefully constructed. It is a focal point on which our eyes will rest, for a moment. Not too big to be an exclamation. Not too flamboyant so as to out do the borders but punctuation in the long space.
From the centre of the round pool, water bubbles from the centre of a rock, tumbles peacefully over the sides and returns to the pool creating a lively ripple. This carefully placed pond and well designed fountain retains the atmosphere of the lively but controlled herbaceous border, the central stone is similar in tone to the surrounding paving, harmony of style and colour.

Plants can be used as ornament to decorate a space or to create the design. They can add texture, colour, form, fragrance and interest throughout the year. How they are combined, where they are placed and how they are used with other features with in our garden; if done so with thought and careful consideration, this will create a more beautiful garden. There is a little bit of a garden designer in every gardener; we must not ignore this creative part of our persona. Instead if we develop our hidden designer, express our creativity, enhance our awareness of colours, forms, balance and harmony, we can transform a collection of plants into a part of something even more beautiful.That strange dark mouse plant, that collection of bright snowdrops and the green ruffled primrose can be details in a composition of garden beauty, components of a greater garden heaven.

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 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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July 17, 2012

Finding our bog

by Ciaran Burke

View of our plot of bog

“Samhradh, samradh, bainne na ngamhna, thugamar féin an samhradh linn…” Hanna was singing while walking down the road, she wore her heavy winter coat. It certainly was not the weather that inspired her performance, but more a plea to the gods to bring the summer weather, “summer, summer, the honeysuckle, we brought the summer with us”. I hope they were listening. The sky above was grey but had not yet released it watery blessings, just as well, for we were walking down Askey Road, on our way to look for our plot of bog.

Burn stems of Ulex europeaus- Aiteann gallda- gorse, whin, furze,

Many of the old houses in the west of Ireland come with turvery rights. For the last eleven years I have known that we have a plot of bog from which we can take peat from a plot of the bog for use on our property. For generations people in rural parts of Ireland have been cutting turf to use as fuel. It has been the cause of trouble recently as areas of bog are under protection due to EU rulings. We do not intend to cut turf from our bog plot, but I wanted to eventually locate our plot, I knew whereabouts it is, but there is a difference in knowing its out there and actually standing in your own bog. I deliberately say “in” and not ‘on” as bogs can be wet and soft, you definitely stand in a bog and not in it.

It is the wet conditions that prevail in this part of the world that actually give rise to bogs. Our bog is a raised bog, formed thousands of years ago. Peat forms in the bog where old plant material does not fully decompose, mosses contribute the majority of the plant material. Here is the conflict; it takes thousands of years for the bogs to form, they are home to unique flora and fauna, yet they are traditionally a source of affordable fuel to local populations, but it is a finite resource that requires habitat destruction in order for the material to be exploited. Bord na Mona, the semi-state company exploits large tracts of bogland for supply to turf burning electricity generation stations, manufacture of peat briquettes and for use in the horticultural industry. Small scale turf cutters and individuals cutting turf for their personal use feel aggrieved that they are not allowed to continue cutting their plots while the large scale operations continue. Compensation schemes are offered, but they will say that their is an emotional attachment to a plot of bog that has been the source of fuel for their ancestors.

Cut bog

One can stand on the outside looking in and be cold and rational and come to the conclusion that any exploitation of bogs is habitat destruction, and point to the fact that removal of turf from the bog contributes to global warming as carbon dioxide is released as peat is extracted. An it is true that peat from Irish bogs will not last forever, it will run out, just as oil is doing and coal has in many regions. But does that mean that large parts of the country are to be left to nature and never be used? I want to reduce my use of peat by my horticultural practices, more and more we are using peat free composts, we do not plan on cutting turf but having found our plot of bog I can understand the attachment that generations of ownership can develop, it felt good standing, or more accurately, sinking, in my own bog.

Vaccinium myrtillus – Fraochán – billberry, wild blueberry

We walked along the tarmac road where the vegetation attempts to reclaim the paving from the centre and the edges. On the ditch we picked a handful of Fraochán berries, the fruit of Vaccinium myrtillus otherwise known as billberries. We turned to the track, preserved as passable by the occasional tractor that drives along it. Along the centre spotted orchid flowers blossom in the long grass, different colour variations of Dactylorhiza maculata. The red buds of a St John’s Wort, Hypericum pulchrum known as Beathnua baineann in Irish, flowered to the side of the path. I heard  a squeaking sound behind me, an all too familiar noise. One of our cats, Danzig, decided to follow us, he came bounding along the tyre tracks stopping to whizz on the odd orchid along the way.

One of our cats, Danzig, joins us on the path to the bog…

Dactylorhiza maculata – Na Circíní- heath spotted orchid

Hypericum pulchrum – Beathnua baineann – flower buds

Grasses, Molinia caerulea, heathers, Erica tetralix and a multitude of mosses are thriving, here and there the blackened sculptures of burnt gorse, Ulex europaeus stems reach out, evidence of the bog fires that cleared the vegetation just over two years ago. We were consulting a map, one which accompanies the deeds for the house. On this map, clearly marked in thick lines, the boundary of our plot. Not so clearly marked, the boundaries of our plot on the bog. We think we have found our plot, assuming that the map is to scale and looking at the uncut ridges that seem to define old plots. It is a long time since anyone has cut turf on this are of bog. Fifty years ago there were eleven houses on our road, the population a thriving 68 souls. Now there are 5 permanent residents in three houses, not many people are left to cut turf.

Narthecium ossifragum – Sciollam na móna – bog asphodel flowers on the bog

We found a way over the ditch, walking carefully so an not to trample the orchid, Listera ovata, with its conspicuous pair of round leaves and inconspicuous tiny green flowers. The bog myrtles, regenerated after the inferno, fragrance the air, some of the sweet aromatic foliage collected to flavour a mead which I made when we got home. Red sphagnum moss forms a deep pile above the wet peat, our boots sinking with each moment spent stationary. We had to keep on the move!

Drosera rotundifolia – Drúchtín móna – sundew

Three species of heather, two species of Erica flowering, a Calluna with its buds, deer grass, Trichophorum cespitosum and swathes of the tiny yellow bog asphodel, Narthecium ossifragum were amongst the plants that caught our immediate attention. Almost buried amongst the red sphagnum was the real little gem, the insectivorous sundew, Drosera rotundifolia. This carnivorous plant traps insects on it’s sticky leaves and then releases an enzyme which digests the nutrients from the insect. One old belief was that the sundew could be used as a love charm due to the little plants ability to lure and entrap other creatures. Well, our bog lured us, and we love it. We will make frequent returns and observe the flora and activities of the fauna. Danzig our cat might return too, although he was quite tired walking home and did not object in the slightest to being carried by Hanna for the final leg of the journey.

Tired from his trip to the bog, Danzig is carried home…

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July 13, 2012

Early morning in our garden in Co. Mayo – July 2012

by Ciaran Burke

Summer, oh where is the summer? This morning was a rare sunny start and I was up early to see the fog lifting its damp veil from around our plants. There is a saying in Ireland, “sun before seven is gone by eleven”. You really do have to get up early to get the best of the day. I was out with the camera at just after 6am, I had started working on a garden plan but the light was fabulous and there was not a breath of wind, to good a moment to miss… I hope you enjoy my photos of some of my favourite plants in the garden at the moment.

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