The changing landscape into Spain

While in Brantome I came across this shrub growing in a small garden. Its a Siberian Pea tree (Caragana arborescens) and is often grown as an Ornamental. Its seeds and pods are edible and features on the Plants for a future database. It’s a beautiful tree to look at.


Siberian Pea Tree

Below a banana plant with some small bananas.




Robinia pseudocacia

The seeds of Robinia are said to be edible raw or cooked. The seed heads of Sumach can be used with cold water  to make a sweet drink.


Stags Horn Sumach Rhus Typhina

From the medieval town of Beynec we visited the hanging gardens at Marqueyssac famous for hundreds of thousands of Box Hedges all cliped into weird and wonderful shapes. They are all hand clipped in Spring and Autumn and we could see them being clipped for winter. The work was very precise with string lines and measures. The garden is high up on a rocky outcrop overlooking Castlenaud and The Roc Gageac. I like the wilder parts of the gardens also but the hedgeing was impressive. Other plants seen here included Mediteranean Cypress ( Cypressus sempervirens), Viburnum tinus, Holm Oak ( Quercus ilex ) which we would see much more of heading south. Turns out that this is edible also and some of the acorns we found were sweet eaten raw. The Holm oak acorns are what the top quality Iberico pig feed on in regions like Extremadura in Spain. It was here that I ended up buying a French plant I.d. book specific to the region. I have had difficulty finding english guidebooks to the trees and plants of France. You just don,t find any english books anywhere.


Box Hedgeing at Marqueyssac


Less formal parts of the Marqueyssac gardens

Further south we visited the hilltop town of Lautrec. This region is famous for its rose garlic which at this stage has been harvested and the fields are being ploughed for the winter. There is such a contrast between the well tended family allotments in the town and the surrounding large scale production of ail.


Like other regional products of France only those growing locally can call their product rose garlic.At the moment the earth is bare in the fields and the plants in the hedgerows and woods are starting to change to those of a drier climate. Even now water pumps are irrigating the dry cracked soil and burning of farm wastes dots the horizon. Along some field edges farmers have sown strips of wildflowers /beetlebanks perhaps to increase biodiversity.


Burning and Irrigation





Wildflowers along field margin

Beyond the city of Carcassonne we past through a wine region before the landscape dramatically changed. We had arrived in Lagrosse an olive growing region whose climate is heavily influenced by the Mediterranean. Everything had change in terms of plants by this point,gone almost completely were deciduous trees except in river valleys, in favour of a drier rockier environment. It was here we started to see the pencil cypress growing alongside Rosemary and lavender. In places it looks like someone planted it. Holm Oak which I remember seeing outside the engineering building in U.C.D. was able for this environment as were some pines.


Olive grove in Lagrasse

Crossing the border into Spain we stayed in Figueres. Outside the city a large citadel sits atop the hill here in scrubland was growing Hawthorn, Blackthorn, in the moat of the fortress. Broom grew in abundance and Euphorbia too.


Citadel in Figueres

Its easy to imagine how hot it must get here in the summer.



The beautiful town of Besalu on the river Fluvia was our first real trip into the Spanish countryside. Here we saw the village allotments with a complex irrigation system of chanels between the plots. We hiked up to a viewing spot above the town with plants like Holm Oak, Arbutus, Aloe on view.


Complex irrigation system at Besalu


The hillside near Besalu

In the moutains near Sadernes the Holm Oak and Arbutus unedo were the main trees growing with an understory of rosemary and thyme.  Its a wondeful place and I love the feeling of remoteness here.


Meltwater bridge crossing a small gorge



Out in the middle of nowhere on a dried up meltwater riverbed


The wonderful Arbutus unedo ( Strawberry tree). Funny to think this is a native back home and found in places like Killarney. These were just about ripe and starting to fall from the trees. I ate more than one


Arbutus unedo

The Holm Oak acorn so important to the taste of spanish ham


Holm Oak

I love the adaptability of the plants growing here.


Below the bridge into St joan de les abadesses another example of terraced irrigated veg plots.We stayed here before a 28 km hike to the top of Taga.


Terraced allotments at Sant joan de les Abadesses

Some autumnal colours


The image below is a web created by the Pine Processionary (caterpillar). We spotted these in many pine trees while up in the mountains and it turns out they are actually quite dangerous. The caterpillars hairs give of a powder which effects the repiratory systems in humans and animals while its hairs if touched cause serious skin irritation (Urticaria). The moths feed on pine needles at night over the winter returning to the heat of their web to digest their meal during the day. Then In feburary and March the caterpillars walk down the trees in a procession on a feramone trail to bury themselves just under the soil where they pupate.It is this time particularly that they are a danger to dogs that might investigate or humans that might try to touch them. In urban areas they are removed by the local authorities.There is talk online that these may have reached Ireland also? The webs are quite large with up to 500 individuals. At the end of the summer the moths lay eggs high in the pines and the cycle repeats. Bacillus thuringiensis is used as a biological control. Natural predators include bats,the Great Tit and being parasitised by solitary wasps. Fascinating stuff.


The tent structure of Pine Processionary (caterpillars)

These political pumkins seen in Ripoll


In St Feliu de Guixols this Purple bindweed was growing along the cliffs. Its quite beautiful but I pity the person trying to tame this beast.


Purple Bindweed

This Pinus pinea with it roots exposed due to erosion was,nt giving up the fight for life.


Oranges and lemons were now common place in gardens




A friend of mine recently pointed out that the best tasting oranges are the ones with the navel opposite the stem. Looking into this it turns out the navel is a mutation originating in Portugal which has left the fruit seedless and therfore propagated by grafting and cuttings. They are easier to peel with thicker skins and unsuitable for juicing due to the presence of limonin having a bitter taste. The mistery of a good orange may have been solved in this additional bitterness. Next time look for a navel.

End of November 2014

Harvest time

Access to internet is a luxury at the moment and it has taken a while to get round to writing this post which covers some of the plants seen on the travels in November. Having a few Latin names of plants etc has been very helpful and at least if your looking at a French guide book you see some familar latin names which can then be looked up in English if need be. With the Wwoofing the latin names also came in handy so I think there is real value in identifying a plant in this way if possible.

The town of Brantome in the Dordogne was our next stop. The region is on a bedrock of limestone and is famous for Foie gras with images on postcards of sweet little old ladies funneling grains into the mouth of a goose . It also boasts to be one of the best places for Trufflle Hunters. Trained dogs / pigs and the presence of certain types of insects are used to unearth them from a few centimetres below the soil. Throughout the season one or other truffle is ready for hunting. In the markets, stalls selling only truffles at 15euro for 10 grams were common. These are used to make infusions with olive oil etc. Many other mushrooms are collected in the region. The Bolete family of mushrooms are all called Ceps in the markets even though I had understood a Cep to be a single mushroom, Porcini or Penny Buns  (Boletus edulis).


If you were wondering where to find mushrooms

Near the town we saw an impressive 400 year old Black Poplar.


Black Popular (Populus nigra)

The woodland in the area comprises Oak, Hazel, Ash, Alder, Poplar, Maple and Beech and I didn’t see any Walnut or Sweet chestnut. In the hedgerows we saw Dog Rose, Spindle,Blackthorn, Oak and Old mans beard (Clematis vitalba). Deep in the shade of the woodland Butchers Broom was growing.


Woodland near Brantome


Ruscus aculeatus





Oldmans Beard (Clematis vitalba)

From Brantome we headed on to Montignac and the Lascaux caves. The Dordogne region is famous for its cave paintings. One evening in the village of Saint Leon sur vesere just as the sun was setting this enormous number of finch like birds gathered in a dense thicket of bamboo near the aire. It was so loud that most people came out to see what the comotion was all about. I tried to look in to see what they were but the bamboo was too dense.


This was the first time we saw bamboo growing in large stands as we traveled south and we were to see lots more bamboo taking over the natural vegetation in Les Ezyes de Tayac.

St Cyprien is located on the Dordogne river in a region growing Hazel, Chestnut, Walnut and Almond. Here we were starting to see Orange and Lemon trees. Along the river one house was growing Kiwi





A typical Walnut Grove

Growing out over the wall of a house I saw this fruit which at first glance looked like an orange but the skin texture was much too smooth. A few days later I started seeing more of the trees growing further south and in a market a stall holder told me they were called Kaki and could be eaten raw or made in to a jam.  It turns out to be a Kaki (Diospyros kaki) also knowns as Japaneese Persimon.


I have found it fascinating how the fruit and veg for sale in the markets is so varied from place to place and the offerings reflect very closely what one finds growing locally. It is however odd seeing people paying up to 8 euro a kilo for walnuts and 4 euro for Chestnuts when they can be so easily collected. I feel we have been so lucky moving through France to see the harvests. In the towns and villages trees such as Plane, Mimosa and Robinia are quite popular and pruning is underway at this time of year.

Le Barliere ,Woofing in the Poitou Charente region

Moving south from the Loire in to the Poitou Charente region the landscape became flat with miles of bare earth and monoculture. Arriving into Vasles an Island in a treesless and total backwater we had reached the middle of knowhere. The town had a small park at the aire “Mutton Village”, where planted exotics where all well labeled. Slated roofes were replaced with red terracota tiles.We moved West to the Coastal town of La Rochelle, then South before turning inland again through Cognac and on to the small Hamlet of Le Barliere where we did some woofing with A Dutch Couple Marie and Hans. Originally from Holland Hands came to France 25 years ago in a Wagon pulled by a tractor seen below and worked as a carpenter locally before settling in the area.


The Wagon

These days they run a small company installing mass stoves. These are large constructions using between 5 and 10 tonnes of a non fired brick with 4% cement and other Dutch components that are imported. A 40 kg load of wood ( wheelbarrow load) is enough to keep the house warm for a few days using this system. Once the fire reaches 300 degrees the flue is slowly closed and the heat is diverted into a 12m series of chambers that run through a seating bench and mass wall at the core of the house. Most of the energy from the burn is absorbed into the structure and is estimated at being 3 times more energy efficient than a convential stove. The system supplys a radiant heat which may not be best suited to a wetter climate (Ireland) Below are some pics.


The fireplace becomes a focal point for two rooms on either side



Chatting across the fireplace


Mass Stove with bench

The wood to fuel this stove is cut an dried from a small forest on the property. The house has a large array of pv cells and a wash room across the garden has a 4 m2 solar hot water heating system with a 300 litre water storage tank about enough for 2.5 people. The control box was reading about 47.5 degree. Everything is surface mounted for easy access and maintenance.


Solar shower system


The Shower Room

Apart from the fireplace and solar showers which I was very interest in there was much more going on here. Marie and Hans approach to life, food,gardening and work was refreshing. In the morning before work the breakfast cereals would be freshly ground using one of these exercise machines and some figs collected off the trees to add to the porridge.


The work itself involved some seasonal maintenance in the gardens and a little light construction work on a round wood timberframe storage area. Here I am doing a bit of work for my keep. I,m mulching around some young trees and shrubs to help them establish. Hans went ahead of us with the strimmer.Then the grass and weeds were raked and moved to the woods for composting in long piles. For the mulching I tore up bits of cardboard and placed them around the shrubs. Next a fairly generous layer of well composted humanure and finally some straw. Water retention is very important in this garden as the summers can be dry and the property is off grip in relation to water relying on its own storage capasity in a 25000 litre below ground storage tank.The water for this is collected from the roof of the house and other outbuilding.


Adding some compost


Mulching with Straw


The roundwood shed

Meal times were very tasty and were often taken outside.There was always a good conversation.


Lunchtime at Le Barliere


Maries approach to gardening was quite natural. Nothing was manicured and mulching was key for both weed supression and water retention. All strimmings were taken to the composting area in the forest. Here layed out in long piles they were allowed to rot down for 4 years before the compost was then spread back out on the garden. Instead of chipping up branches on the spot they were dragged into dead hedging to provide habitat for hedgehogs etc. This avoided the use of a noisy woodchipper. We did see a hedge hog nearby.Composting and recycling of garden material was how the fertility was maintained and little came from outside.


Hedgehog spotted near house


Dead Hedgeing providing habitat


Composting in a woodland

After 4 years the compost is sieved and ready for use.



There is,nt a polytunnel here but you dont really need one. Aubergines, Peppers and Tomatoes are quite happy outdoors. The propagator below is good for basil.



Most of the garden is well mulched. Parts not used for growing specific crops or tree/shrubs are allowed to seed and many young Oak trees and Field Maple are among the docks and teasel.


Only access ways are cut


Peppers growing outdoors nearby

The start of a new bed can be seen with a layer of fabric used to exclude light. The waste edges of sawn timbers are used to build the raised beds.


Raised beds

Throughout the gardens there was a lot of firewood being dried.


Heavy mulches were applied around all the vegetables.This did bring the problem of some slug damage but they are considering getting ducks.


Preserving and storing was very important and behind the kitchen was a well stocked pantry which led directly to the gardens. All manner of preserve could be found here. While we were woofing we made apple puree, preserved beetroot /cucumber and appletart.


Store area

Marie was talking about extending this area and was advising on making this as generous a space as possible.

Composting toilets are in place to cycle all human wastes back into the system. When in use you lowered a flag to let others know the toilet is occupied. There were no unpleasant smells. Within the house a diverter system separated the ones and twos.


Composting loo

Hans has been building this amazing treehouse which might serve as woofing accomadation in the future. There are many small things going on in a place like this that we learned loads. On the last evening we had apple tart high in the trees as the sun went down. Le Barliere is relatively new to woofing we were woofers 9 and 10. I would highly recommend it. Details can be found in the Woof France booklet or online.


Turquant and South of the Loire

The Troglodyte village of Turquant is on tufa rock and most of the houses on this part of the Loire are built of this stone. Below is a pic of some studios one of which sells tapped apples. Back in 1887 the Eel worm Phylloxera showed up in the grapevines and wiped out the existing stock. It was able to eat through the cambium layer in the roots of the vines and for a time untill a solution could be found the people of this area started making a type of alcoholic desert using apples. The preserved fruits were hit with a hammer before being bottled. Their long shelf life meant that the industry took off. Only one business remains selling tastings but it was interesting to think about how the people of the region adapted.


Before the vines were wiped out to produce a new plant one simply took hardwood cuttings and put them in the ground. Now all the vines grown are on American root stocks that have a thicker cambium layer which the eel worm cannot penetrate. Todays varieties are grafted onto these rootstocks. Ironically the eelworm came in from America as did the solution.

In the man made caves beneath this village and surrounding countryside muchrooms are grown comercially and every so often among the vines you see a ventilation shaft.


The variety of grape grown is mainly Cabernet Franc from Bordeaux. Below is a picture of wall.The grower Piere Cristal once grew vines through long stone wall.The vines were planted on the cooler north side and as they grew they were trained  through small holes about a half metre from the ground.This meant that the fruits could benefit from full sun as well as the heat that stored in the wall. It reminded me a bit of how when your walking along a road and you find some tasty blackberries growing by a south facing stone wall.


Traditionally these vines would have been hand picked and destined for Bordeaux. Reflecting a little on the landscapes we have seen such as the fields of Corn, Brassicas, and especially the vines its easy to get seduced into the notions of tradition that signboards in villages focus on. The good old days when the work was done by hand, when the patterns of planting where scattered, very different from the order which allows for machine harvesting today. There is no getting away from the fact that these are enormous monocultures reliant on chemicals to keep pest and disease at bay. Here I came across a perhaps disgarded vine growing as part of a hedge which I find far more interesting.


Moving south from the Loire the landscape is almost entirely monoculture. In the fields off in the distance large corn harvesting machines are followed by tractors and those tall vine harvesting machines move down the rows to waiting trailors. It seems it is no longer possible to take part in the traditional handpicking harvest. Traditionally spanish pickers moved between the vinyards helping at harvest time. Below is a pic of what is left when the corn has been harvested.


Brittanny, Normandy and the Loire Valley

Slow internet at the moment so no pics yet!

Arriving into the Town of Roscoff we headed out for a long walk around the town and into the surrounding countryside. One of the first thing you notice is that there are no fences or hedges around fields making them easily accessible and suitable for machine harvesting. In the town itself between the houses it was common to come across a field of cabbages of perhaps 2 or 3 acres all in perfect rows and with few weeds. A few minutes down the road and there was an acre of corn growing, further along Jerusalum Artichokes by the acre and all in the town itself. I was thinking these might have been community patches but I,m not so sure now. Along the Roadsides and verges flowers replaced the typical grass strips of home especially on corners where clearly great care and attention was given to planting of perennial shrubs mixed with annuals flowers and ornamental veg. Plants included Amaranth, Cosmea, Corn. Walking along looking into the gardens, people were growing apples, pears, figs and passion flowers as well as well ordered leeks, kale and many annual vegetables. It is from Roscoff that the Johnnies laden with their rose onions took the boat to the U.K to sell door to door as far away as London. Apparently 20 men still do this?
In these parts there is a love of the exotic and within Roscoff there is an exotics garden near the rose granite shore. One of the more unusual trees that caught my eye was the Mimosa now out of flower but with its distinctive fern like leaves and pods dangling looking like peas. These were planted regularly as ornamentals in parks and gardens. The coastline around here is rocky granite and down on the shore line an entire family was walking knee deep in the water with nets poking under rocks and dropping some unfortunate creature into their buckets. There is clearly a cultural interest in foraging over here.
In Le Diben similar plants were found. Here the residence had a particular love for Hydrangeas , Agapanthus and Lots of Rosa Rugosa ( the flesh is very tasty just the surface layer)Around the rocky coastline Rock Samphire and Seabeet was growing in the splash zone and this too was gathered. Between the houses on green lanes the odd tasty treat was hanging which I must admit on a few occasion was too difficult to resist.
In Plougasnou the quiet town came alive on Tuesday with a market in the village centre. Quite a few of the stalls were selling AG (Agriculture Bio) Organic in other words and there was a dazzling array of Squash of all shapes and sizes. Large Aubergines were selling 3 for 2 euro and a Demi Kilo of Organic mixed cherry tomatoes went for 2 euro. You could tell the stall holders were passionate about their food and it was nice to be able to support them.
We stayed on an organic cider farm near Pleston which is part of the France passion stopover places for campervan. Here we walked the orchards and surrounding country lanes. The apple trees were spaced between 20 and 25 feet apart between rows and 8,12 and 25 feet apart in the row depending on rootstock I imagine. Bee hives were used for pollination. The surrounding fields were intensively planted with fodder maize which by now was well dry and days from harvest. Indeed a few days later we did see the Harvesting with Combines and tractors as we met a road block. Beyond the apple trees and fields of corn the few hedges were full of Sweet Chestnut. They literally fell on you. I had read that these can be eaten raw once shelled so gave it a try. Initially the taste is a bit odd (Tart) but does sweeten up after a bit. These are passable I suppose but much nicer roasted. I have since read that they can be boiled for 30 to 40 mins and eaten so will try this soon. Now that the bucket of spuds from the home garden is empty there is some space to store some for the winter. They are much larger than those I have seen growing in Ireland and you are likely to get 2 decent nuts instead of one.
In Dinan a Medieval walled town we parked at the base of the Viaduct and headed up hill to the town passing through an old apple Orchard. There were some good but small eaters here so gathered a few. In the towns market area all manner of vegetables, fish , meat ,mushrooms and even snails were on sale. The mushrooms on sale included Ceps, Chanterelle, oysters, Shikake and I am still to come across edible mushrooms on walks. I did see a beefsteak the other day but it’s a bit messy to bring back.
In Segre we walked along the L’Oudan river littered with Sweet Chestnuts. The river mist was rolling in as night fell. By the banks of the river boats were tied up at the bottom of a large neat allotment area full of flowers, fruit bushes and an array of veg.
As we approached the Loire region we saw the first grape vines as the cornfields made some room for the vines. We stopped in the town of Saint-Remi were we walked the surrounding countryside on the river banks. The entire area is prone to flooding and is a protected habitat. The land here is very sandy and traditionally used for hay making. In the fields North of the town to the river the land is managed to encourage wild flowers. In particular the Snake Fritilary (April-May) grows here. The hedgerows here are 200 years old and include species such as (Tappoled ) Ash trees. This is the practice of pollarding the tree at about 10 feet or so. Elm, Cherry, Oak and Willow and Poplar also grow here. Mistletoe was also spotted growing . On the return to the village a large walnut tree had dropped a pile of nuts so these were gathered for cracking later. We have been adding them to the breakfast. My uncles tool kit saved the day yet again.
At the Chateau Brissac after the visit we walked the grounds. On a south facing slope were rows of vines with small white wine grapes. They had yet to be picked. Recent planting included many species of Acers for example “Green Cascade” Arround the tree and perennial beds thick layers of perhaps 2 to 3 inches of woodchips (not bark mulch) are used to suppress weed growth and retain moisture. This practice has been noticed in many town and villages so far.

We stayed at a wine producers in Montreuill-Bellay and walked out into surround countryside. Here the rolling hills are covered in vineyards. Seven vines at 4 foot spacing then a post for as far as the eye can see and about a 4 foot spacing in the rows . Some are supported on the North –South axis others on the East –West, As the row and spacing width seem to be the same ,the direction of support I,m guessing has more to do with wind direction. Generally vines grew on both sides of the road. At a bend in the road there was a patch of waste ground that had a mix of trees and shrubs. Here along the road a number of perhaps disgarded vines were growing up the trees. In contrast to their manicured neighbours the grapes were much larger but less of them. As this was a bit of waste ground and these were “weeds” I decided to have a taste. The flavour was incredible. My little vine at home had produced some tasty grapes but these were in a different league. I,m very luck to be here at this time as the machine are out picking the grapes today so the flavours are at their best.

Volunteering Abroad


Well that’s the end of that. Yesterday we said goodbye to the house and garden and we are nearly ready for volunteering overseas. We did a big harvest and have plenty to keep us going for a while. Laura made some chutney with the surplus green tomatoes. The carrots, parsnips and oca and some of the turnips however just were,nt ready so they will stay. I dug up the Jerusalem artichokes and Yacon which have produced some nice tubers. Plenty more has been distributed to family and friends and I know Ruth will do a great job looking after the pumpkin and hopefully eat it too.
A neighbour offered a few quid for the little demountable greenhouse so that got moved but I have left the polytunnel and dome as well as all the trees and winter veg which would,nt move well anyway.
The past month has been a very busy time, thankfully all the planning is starting to pull together and we can now enjoy a few days with family. The only plan is to take the ferry from Cork to Roscoff on Saturday and a week later begin the first of our volunteering stays with a helpx host in Normandy. The host lives on a 27 acre small holding with woodland and small lake so plenty of jobs to get busy with. On the third week we will be house sitting while our host goes on holidays. We are hoping to learn loads on this trip ,new skills like grafting trees, working with animals and living off the land generally. I’m fascinated to see the different crops being grown in various climatic regions and the variety of growing styles and techniques people use. I,m also really looking forward to learning about regional plants and animals and doing plenty of foraging. In many ways this will be our little “grand tour” made possible by organisations such as helpx and Woofing. In return for 5 to 6 hours work per day, 5 to 6 days a week you get bed and board and tonnes of learning.
The plan beyond all this is literally that there is no plan, we will see what comes our way and who we meet. There are a number of places I would like to volunteer if we are nearby, one being Plants for a future in Cornwall. They take volunteers after April and that would be amazing to see some of the 1700 edible species of plant that Ken and others have gathered at the big field. Would also love to see Martin Crawford forest garden and Sepp Holzers Krameterhoff in Austria. Anyway these are just ideas and if we don’t get to them I,m sure we will have spent our time at equally interesting projects.
To do this trip we have had to give everything up. It is like throwing cards up in the air and seeing where they land , it feels a bit mad, it feels amazing. So much could go wrong or right and who knows where we will end up. The Garden Diary entries from now on will document our experiences as volunteers on various projects abroad.

Saving Seed at Home and Huntingbrook garden Visit

Part 1 Home Garden

I,m winding down the home garden at the moment, clearing sheds and re distributing tools and equipment to friends, family and neighbours. The watering system for the tunnel was dismantled yesterday after a good soak of 20 litres /m2 this should buy some time. It’s really interesting deciding what to take and what to leave. There is still loads to eat only this time as plants are cleared the space they occupy is not being replanted. I had considered sowing a green manure inside and out but I,m thinking this might be interpreted as overgrown grass and put off prospective gardeners. Instead as plants are removed the beds are being covered with a fresh layer of rough homemade compost, its full of life. I had taught of covering this with cardboard or plastic but to be honest its purpose might be miss understood as ugly and put someone off. Instead I will leave these open to the elements where the material will be taken down over the winter and where fermented tomatoe seeds and other seeds that made it through the compost will germinate and grow next year. Thinning may be all that is required. This will give the new tenants the longest possible time to figure out how amazingly rewarding it is to be able grow vegetables and flowers.They may think they require no work at all. Thats the idea anyway.


I was delighted recently a few years after putting in the pond to see common frogs in the garden. Here is one in the greenhouse helping to balance the system naturally eating some slugs. The ducks may be gone but this fell will get the job done. Hopefully he has some friends.


With the shortening day length the Oca is starting to come on. These tubers swell in the autumn so I will leave them till the 11th hour just before heading off. We should be well laiden


That goes for the pumpkins also


The cobs at home are not that big but they do taste good.


One of the biggest jobs remaining is seed saving. I have been collecting seed in the past week such as sunflower heads, poppies,Callendula, Mallow etc.You want to save seed from the healthiest plant/s you have.


To save tomato seeds they must be fermented first to remove the germination inhibitors. I am saving 5 varieties of tomato seed at the moment. They are Brandywine, Black Cherry, Tumbler, Mexican Midge and Money Maker. The mexican midge and tumbler were grown outdoors and have done really well.Will have to make chutney as we are all tomatoed out!


To save the Tomato seed I pick the best ripe tomato from the best plant cut length ways spoon out the seeds and the goo. Put this in a clear jar, add some water if needed and cover. Leave some small holes for airflow. Place this in a warm place such as kitchen window to ferment for a few days this will remove the germination enhibitors coating the seed and they can then be separated from the goo. It does stink a bit. Allow the seed to dry fully for a week or more before storing in paper bags or plastic containers.Below Money Maker and Brandywine seeds tomatoes being selected for seed saving.





Make sure the seed is fully dry if using plastic.You will find fallen fruit fermenting and smelling naturally as they deteriorate.Slugs like this! The pic below left is a tomato that fell from the plant and is deteriorating and to the right a cluster of tomato seeds germinating in some compost. If this was early in the season you could just thin and leave what you want to grow on and provide a new crop.


Mallow seeds are easily collected once dry on the plant and placed in a paper bag. When you think about the price of seeds it makes sence to grown open pollinated varieties that allow for this.


A really easy one to save are Nasturtiams simply pick up the dried seeds and store in a paper bag till next year. You probably won’t need to save any unless your moving out or something like that as they seed like mad.


Another handy one is Coriander which can be saved when the seed has dried out on the plant but before it rots with the rains


Below are a variety of other plants going to seed in the garden. Mizuna , Onion. Basil



I put some pond water into this container a few weeks back. it contained some Elodia and Duck weed which have now covered the surface. I was thinking this could be a nice way to drown weeds such as Bindweed and just keep removing the surface growth to act as a mulch around plants or  as greens into the compost . The bind weed is like a Russian advancing.


Many of the plants are looking a bit wrecked now so plenty of clearance to be done soon.




Part 2: Visit to Jimi Blakes Huntingbrook Gardens

On sunday I headed along to an open day up at Huntingbrook Gardens. It’s a very impressive place even though my main focus has been edible plants rather than ornamentals. The picture below is of the flower borders along the curving ramped walkway which leads up to the cabin.


I drew a little map of how I remember the site and its main elements.

No.1 Flower Border

No.2 Flower Border

No.3 Main flower island

No.4 Dahlias

No. 5 Greenhouses and propagation area

No 6. Cabin/ workshop space

No.7 Deep shaded woodland

No.8 Meadow

No. Parking

No. 10 Specimen trees

No 11. Return walk through woodland

No. 12  Forest with Larch

jimi blakes garden

I particularly enjoyed the sence of discovery walking around the gardens. As you come through the gates you get a glimpse of the wooden cabin up to your right but are then redirected to the left for parking. The approach to the house is not direct but rather up a wide curving gravel path with high banks of planted colour to left and right.The layout is clearly influenced by classical design ideas. Curving around at the top to face south ish, you are presented with the narrow end of the main island bed within the garden. Jimi later in the day spoke of how he retains views across  deep planting by using spire like plants that let light and views through especially from 3 feet and above.

Neatly tucked away but at a convenient distance the greenhouse and potting sheds are located this is screened from the flower garden both of which resemble forest coups or clearings (No 5).

Around the cabin with its East facing veranda is a rap around lawned area with some specimen acers to the East. To the south side of the cabin a small vegetable garden in terraces provides herbs and fresh veg. The veg would,nt be the main focus of this garden. Beyond the lawned area to the south one passes under a living willow pergola and suddenly you enter a woodland. The woodland becomes darker as one winds their way down a steep sided riven running East / West. The odd chair is possitioned along the route where the gardener / walker can rest and take in the wonderful surroundings. There are many introduced woodland species of plant to enjoy along the route. I spotted a few muchrooms including the Yellow Stagshorn (Calocera viscosa) Bay Bolete, and the  Xlaria polymorpha ( Dead mans fingers ) in the pic. It looks a bit like frostbitten fingers belonging to some poor fellow crushed by the fallen log. They are saprobes growing from the decaying wood aiding its breakdown.


At the bottom of the deep cut a surreal banquet table of roundwood logs awaited and then the ascent into the light where you suddenly pop out and are in a meadow. A path then leads down hill as the field opens out and then you move back into the woods to return to the flower garden. There is a great diversity of habitats on this little site and the journey through the gardens has been well considered.

Later on in the day Jimi spoke of his top 25 plants for the month while we gathered around the main island bed (no. 3 on the diagram.) I was delighted to hear about the gardens environmental approach namely the use of compost and woodchips and an emphasis on single flowering species. One interesting tip Jimi spoke about was planting dark coloured carrots like one would a bulb for over the winter. These will flower the following year and look great. Must try this! Jimi is into Salvias at the moment and recommended Salvia microphylla ‘Joy’ available in Johnstown Garden Centre.

The talk then moved down the slopes of the ramp with its wonderful borders see pic below, to the entrance where a number of as yet unnamed Dahlias were in flower. When then moved to the lawn where we looked at a number of specimen Acer, Magnolia , Bamboo and Rhododendron. Another of Jimis tips for pruning Acers was to do so in the summer as they will leak if pruned early. Think Maple syrup and Birch tapping.  The plant of the day was Dahlia Australis


Border at Huntingbrook

Farewell Parkhouse

August is a great month in the garden. Apart from watering , weeding and harvesting it’s a time when one should try to take the foot off the gas a little and enjoy the bounty of food on offer before September when the sowings for overwinter and clearance will begin. Earlier this week we had a barbeque to celebrate all the hardwork. We had a lovely afternoon in the tunnel cooking and eating while the rain pelted the polythene above our heads. We were joined by friends from other departments. Sheilagh from the day centre in particular saved the day by offering us the use of their gas barbeque.


We had resorted to the flamer.



That morning we picked and prepared some fruit and veg. Delicious tomatoes,and basil , courgette and onion , sweetcorn, salads , baked potatoes, eggs and good quality butchers burgers, chicken and sausage. For desert raspberries and Victoria Plums with fresh cream. Hopefully this will be the first of many barbeques in the future.


With all this tasty food we were joined by some feather friends. This one was luck not to have been plucked and cooked, there was talk of it.


This is my last week at Parkhouse so feeling a little sadness mixed with excitement for the future. These are some of the lads I,ve worked with over the past 18 months. Some of the faces have changed as we operate a continuous intake system Fetac level 4 Hort. While I look forward to volunteering (woofing) on the continent I will definately miss the place as  gardening you develope a strong connection with place. A big thanks to all for making me feel very welcome , It has been a mutual learning experience. As a centre for Horticultural education one of the great strengths of Park House is that it operates year round which I think is so important to experience the entire yearly cycle.

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It’s weird taking the last walk around. Here Bulb fennel is doing well and I,m sure will be harvested and cooked when ready. For those at Park House who read this blog especially Gus  who is handing over this bed to Paddy the fennel will be ready when its about 3 inches accross. Remove the leaves from the bulb and store in a sealed bag in the fridge for use. It’s nice roasted with fish.

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The site of the corner heap is now sorted, it took a huge effort to clear. It’s a lovely spot in the garden. Joe seems to have appointed himself in charge of composting and I know he will keep on top of incoming material in the composting area.The site still needs a decent wood chipper however.

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The South West view from the former composting area looking to the top and cane fruit.

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Joe turning the compost

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An example of top fruit ( apple) with red and white currants / rhubarb planted together. The woodchips are proving quite effective at weed supression and soil protection and I would definately do this again. There is a bounty of fruit now.

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One of the heavily laden Victoria Plums. An amazing crop of delicious fruit. 

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This courgette is growing in Jordans bed , he had decided to leave it on the plant to see how big it will get. These are open pollinated so the seed can be saved also. .

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The current record holder is ..

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At this stage there are so many courgettes a competition is in order.

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Joe harvesting some cut and come again salads.

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Danny thinning a few carrots for dinner. The taste of the veg is winning him over.

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Brendan harvesting some runnerbeans.

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Woodchips used around ornamentals

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Layering: To get new strawberry plants the runners are potted up. Use a folded piece of wood or old coat hangers to hold down.These are typically detached from the mother plant in September. To get the strongest plant pot up the first runner of the season, removing all others and fruit from the mother plant thus all the energy goes into the new plant. Strawberries are grown for three years then production drops. Its a good idea each year to produce a percentage of new plants to continue on as older ones are removed. The bed can travel using this technique. Spacing is typically 45cm (plants) x 60cm ( rows)

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Sweetcorn as fresh as it gets for the barbeque.

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A selection of squash. Gabriel trained his in a tight circle using canes, a Joy Larcom method. 

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An example of Fasciation on Veronica. The growth in this case is flattened but causes no harm to the plant. Possible causes are many, hormonal, bacterial, fungal, viral, genetic.

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The square foot bed is a good way to grow a wide variety of veg in a small space.

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Leeks coming along in Jordans bed.

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Carrots surrounded by leeks to help deter the carrot root fly.

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Carrots and Parsnips protected with barrier.

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J Artichokes can be harvested from late Autumn and will store in boxes of sand.

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Figs coming on

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Apples and pears

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Cordon apples

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Harvesting area.

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Rainbow chard

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Salad beds.

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A quick design to introduce drip and overhead irrigation in the tunnel.

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This is a very special place with a long history of gardening. Its been a pleasure to work here with some lovely people. I would like to thank all the staff especially Ann O’ Sullivan and David Shorthall. This has been a great experience for me that I,m sure will open up all sorts of opportunities in the future.  Many thanks and goodbye for now.

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The unattended garden , Farm walk in Carlow and Eco talk

Part 1 Home Garden

Its almost mid August and there is now a noticable nip in the air as the day length shorten. Over the past week or so I,ve been away from home for much of the time except for some essential indoor watering every 3 days to keep the indoor crops going. I suppose you can sort of get away with a week away at this time as most of the sowing for the season has been done and many of the overwintering crops can be sown in September and October. In any case we won’t be doing this as there is just 6 weeks remaining before we give up the house. I’m looking forward to the change of scene.

It’s amazing how much things change even in a week. Below the grass in need of cutting. It had gotten too long to chop and drop as it would exclude light from the grass underneat. I decided to collect some and spread the fresh clipping over some of the beds.


I got rid of the petrol mower sometime ago and use a push type which is much better at getting in around the beds. The grass is much lusher and returning to areas of bare soil by regular cutting. At the start of the season in spring I kept the setting high but as the growth rate has increased I lowered it.  With all the guano that the lawn receives I,m sure robbing a bit of greenery this time is  not going to do the lawn any harm.


There are some spuds to be dug in this bed. As the surface is mulched fairly roughly so adding a layer of grass  will help to break this material down quicker before the next crop.


There was great excitement at finding this pumpkin hiding.


I try to do as little digging as possible save for growing spuds at present but this wil change. After about 2 weeks with very little attention what bit of weeding there is will take a fraction of the time had there been bare soil. One thing I will take forward to any future garden is digging as little as possible if at all. In my opinion its only one method of gardening but I recon it’s unnecessary work. I would recommend any gardener to try spreading on the surface what they had intended digging in well rotted ,  FY.M. etc and see what happens. There is no one solution for how to garden, no catch all, no such thing as if you do this this and this it will be guaranteed to work,  every site is different, the resources time and aspirations of every gardener are different and so the approach must and should be different. Personally I love experimenting I,m not long enough at this to be fixed into a method or style, I say forget style, forget convention, forget trend and make decisions based on what’s in front of you.  Recently I,ve been visiting some gardens and farms. It is very interesting to see how others garden. I,m interested in the reasons why gardeners do things a particular way and I am fascinated with the nutshell of how their system works for them.

Below is a bed of onions after two weeks with no weeding or hoeing. I dont hoe either. It will take less than a minute to pull what few weeds there are here.


On a recent visit a grower told me they had produced and sold 200 euro of salads on about 1 square metre in a tunnel. Charles Dowding has some interesting figures on yields on dig and no-dig systems. Of course it not all about quantity and there are environmental problems with high imput gardening. I would love to see some examples of gardens with no imputs from off site manure or compost resources other than that which birds and wildlife bring as they are attracted in or that which is cycled from within. All the while at the same time being no dig/ no till. I get the feeling this is entering the realm of the forest garden system with a mix of nitrogen fixers, deep rooted dynamic accumulators,  decomposers and stacking.

I can only imagine how much one could spend in an organic shop. It makes so much sence to grow some food. Its better for you and will save money.


In this bed two bush type tomatoes have been interplanted with Oca. The tomatoes are growing outdoor and will all ripen together within a two week period. This is ideal for making large batches of sauce. The tomatoes are in their hundreds on these two plants.




Before heading off for a few days I cleared part of this bed ready for replanting. The drip feed irrigation can be seen snaking its way along the bed. I decided to sow radish , coriander and beet etc. The radish follow the line of the drip feed as they are fast growing and can be harvested first. The other crops  are growing in blocks. see below.



A bed of mixed salad leaves. A few weeks back I added a layer of homemade compost. I then mixed a bunch of saved seed in a bowl and sprinkled it over the top. The surface of the compost was not smoothed so the seed found its way down cracks etc. With the rain the compost settled and covered the seed.


A singly sown lolla rossa lettuce, filling a gap in a carrot bed. Its a good idea to have a bunch of plants ready for transplant into gaps after direct sowings.






To the rear of the garden some of the bed are within the drip line of trees from the neighbours garden. On the edge that sees a little sky some brassicas are doing well. They got a deep watering when they went in as well as a good surface mulch with homemade compost.



Deeper into the shade a bed of  mixed salads went well. Their cooler position seems to have prevented early bolting.


Some broadbeans and a vine along the boundary.


One of the pumpkins heading toward the light.


The cucumber plant doing well in the tunnel.


The shinseki pear tree. We had,nt yet spotted the pumpkin from above seen in this pic.


Yellow pitcher apple tree from seed savers an eater ready in October


The green sprouting brocolli in the tunnel is still producing spears.


Growth through the sawdust in duck dome. I think this is germination of wheat grains from their feed. Fumitory growing up the dome.


Bed of Brassicas


The last strawberry this summer


The grapes have taken on a lovely dark colour. Must resist picking


Minnesota midge melons in the little greenhouse. Delighted with these.


The signs of autumn


The pumpkin patch has gone mad ! Love it .


The tunnel also gone mad. The garden is an organised mess of plants


Part 2

Paulas Farm walk

Headed down to Carlow on Sunday for a farm walk with other students from the Organic college. Our course tutor Paula showed us around her 2 acre farm.



Below is a sketch layout. The orientation is,nt shown but rotate the image -45 degress approx and North is up the page. Near the entrance a complex of barns are used for packing veg and flowers ready for the Carlow Framers market. The site is in the form of a long narrow strip bounded by mature trees to the North West and lower trees and shrubs to the South East. Near the entrance a native trees nursery of local provenance are growning in tyres for planting. The complex of barns and hedging provide shelter from the prevailing winds. Water is fed into a large elevated water tank and the 2 tunnels are watered every 3 days approx using hoses. The site is non residential.

paula penders garden


Cut flowers for market  are grown both outdoor and in the tunnels. Some of the flowers  are Nigella love-in- a-mist, Scabiosa, Yarrow, single stem sunflowers (zoar) available from the organic centre and is pollen free, Cosmos( much loved by the slugs), Liatris, Sweetpea ( spaced at 1 foot), Veronica sightseeing mix, Solidago ( Golden rod does however spread a lot) Larkspur which is like Delphinium but easier to grow, ,  Marigold Frances choice, Verbena bonariensis, Callendula Resina ( high oil content good for hermal uses) , Ageratum and zinneas. In the tunnel Amaranth ( Hopi red dye) and Foxtail millet do better inside for the late season bouquette.


Some of the vegetable varieties grown are Courgette Darkstar ( open habit, smaller leaves easier for harvesting) and Dundoo F1 and Costrata (Italy). The squash variety grown is Uchiki Kuri. Salad varietys grown include Cos and saladbowl.

In the tunnel dwarft french beans are grown and the tomato varieties include Black Crimea (cherry), Isis candy, Gardeners delight, Yellow pear, Yellow gooseberry, Zuckertraube, Chadwick cherry, Sungold F1 and Peacevine. We did a taste test and the peacevine is particularly delicious. This tomato was developed by Dr Alan Kapuler and is so named for it high amino acid content which has a calming effect on the body. Definately one to try. These are all types of cherry tomato which customers want at the market. Other varieties include Paste and Brandywine.


We saw an example of the webs created by the red spider mite on the underside of a courgette leaf. Also we saw deformation on many of the crops, elongated flattend stems on the tomatoes and elongated fruit, which I think looked like fasciation after having seen this recently on a veronica plant.

Outside crops

Outside in the field 16 rows of potatoes were planted varieties include Nicola, Sante and Sarpo Mira . Unfortunately they were lost to blight. The pea variety grown are Rondo supported with posts and sheep wire. They grown to about 3 feet and tasted very nice. Celeriac is grown in staggered rows at 15 inch spacings approx. Green sprouting brocolli varieties are Bellstar and Fiesta ( 1 main head)

At the top of the field a row of summer and Autumn fruiting raspberry canes and beyond this some apple trees with varieties, James Grieve, Discovery and Bramley ( for pollination) on row ends.

Beyond the apple trees was an area planted with willow one variety was packing twine others were purples and yellows. If cut fresh willow can be used within 6 weeks. Kept longer the canes will have to be soaked for 1 day per foot before they are ready for use in basket making. They can be kept for up to 8 years before use. A bee hive was located here as well as another down near the barn.

This was a very informative visit and really glad I went along.

Part 3  Eco Talk

Was delighted to be asked by a good friend to give a gardening talk on monday to a group of Jesuit Eco Pilgrims.




Recent visits

Garden visits

On monday the 28th of July we visited Mount Usher and Kilmacurragh gardens in Wicklow. That morning before leaving we had spotted an example of Fasciation on a Veronica plant which got the learning off to a good start.  We spent a few hours with our guide books  in hand following the river Vartry and the numbered tree trail around the gardens. Some plants in particular took my eye. Lunaria  Honest / The money plant which had finished flowering and its disc shaped seed pods were on display. This plant is suitable for part to shady areas and  its seeds used in flower arranging.

I was drawn to Colletia from the Rhamnaceae family. This plant is from South America and Its rather a leathal looking thing with a stem that forms flattened triangles with sharp points. It’s one of a small number of plants that are non leguminous nitrogen fixers. Other examples of this include Alders , Sea-buckthorns, and Gunnera ( Cyanobacteria).

Another odd looking plant Ruskus ( Butchers Broom) caught my eye with its flattened shoots that look like pointed leaves. It tollerates deep shade and has many medicinal uses connected with blood flow in the body.

Heading on to Kilmacurragh we took a tour at 3pm

Plants noted include

  1. Silphium perfoliatum ( gum, medicinal uses, edibility, high protein content)
  2. Cardiocrinum giganteum the largest of the lilys which flowered earlier this year after 8 years
  3. The Chillean aromatic laurel was probably the higlight of the day with its wonderful scented leaves. Its a champion our guide exclaimed !
  4. Wolllemia nobilis.( considered extinct untill 1994 when discovered near Sydney)

Kilmacurragh provides refuge for plant that are endangered in the wild

Rock pools 

Ballybunion Mens beach kerry Monday the 4th

At low tide Dad and I headed out onto the Limestone rocks to take a look about. We began our search by turning over a few rocks in the small pools and then waiting a second or two to see if a Porcelain crab would reveal itself by moving around the smoothed stone. Sure enough we found them as he had said. We also found hilarous little Hermit crabs and watched as they made a  dash for water. Other crabs we saw were the shore, Montague and the shell of an edible crab.

We found 3 types of  Periwinkle, edible, rough and flat. We also found top shell, Dog Whelk, Limpets, Acorn Barnacles, Koil worm and Sand Hoppers. In the rock pools we found a cute Blenny ,prawns, Beadlet Anemone, Sea Squirt,and Compass jellyfish washed up on the beach and later seen from a canoe.

Seaweeds seen were: Sugar Kelp, Kelp , Bladder wrack, Gutweed, Pink encrusting seaweeds, Coral Weed, Pepper Dulse, Carageen Irish Moss ( blue iridescent tips under water),Gut weed and Sea Lettuce.

Cashen river near Ballybunion

Abundance of Glasswort and Sea Aster growing together on the mud flats, Seabeet on rocks, Duke of Argylls Tea Plant ( Goji berry) ,growing in limestone gabions only a few red berries as the site is windy. Spear Leaf Orache, Wild Carrot, Ladys Bedstraw growing nearby. The glasswort ( Marsh samphire) is very nice boiled and served with butter stripping the flesh from the stringy centre and a bit like Rock Samphire in taste.