10 December 2019
As I sit here in the aftermath of Storm Atiyah I am mentally preparing for the most common, and least pleasant, gardening task that I have had to carry out since moving to the South West of Ireland: checking for storm damage. The pre-storm ritual of making sure that nothing can fly away, flap or bang in the breeze has already been carried out in good time and is relatively easy to do. However, I have never been able to determine what plants will list, fall over or disappear entirely. I am always surprised by the tenacity of some and the frailty of others. I have also learned that storms can bring unwanted gifts from elsewhere. Storm Ophelia presented me with a large Christmas tree and I was still debating how to retrieve it safely when it took off again to pastures new. I am now on first name terms with a series of storms which have effectively cured me of my childhood excitement and left me with a healthy respect for nature’s ability to scare me silly. Status orange storms are becoming commonplace here and I am full of respect for the resilience of most of my plants. However, the extremes in climate and weather are testing my gardening knowledge (and my resilience) to the limit.
From the sheltered walled garden of my childhood I have created gardens in progressively more exposed and difficult locations from the North East of Scotland to the South West of Ireland. Some of these gardens have been blank canvasses, i.e. bare fields surrounded by barbed wire fences and little else. Others had already been started by previous owners so that some of the basics were already in place. But regardless of the location, or the state of the land, I never concerned myself much with the weather apart from accepting that deep snow and frozen ground limits your gardening ability considerably. In fact, only a couple of storms come to mind when I think of my twenty years spent in the North East of Scotland. The hazard there was more likely to be snow rather than gales. While I did not enjoy driving in the former or the risk of being stuck in a snowdrift all gardening work ceased in this weather and I could dedicate my extended time indoors to planning for spring.
I have always tried to be an organic gardener and to this day am still embarrassed by the occasional use of weedkillers. I banned them from my gardens long before this happened officially and am happy to find other ways of dealing with unwanted ‘pests’ . It is another challenge in an already difficult environment but one that brings its own rewards. Wildflowers love the pure ground and the birds, bees and butterflies love the wildflowers so everyone is happy.
My latest garden is perched on a hill overlooking Roaringwater bay on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. It is exposed to all but the north west gales. As these are rare most storms batter the house and garden and each direction brings its own difficulties. In addition to the devastation caused by severe winds salt is particularly destructive and the combination of the two can turn a plant or shrub black overnight. The garden is steep in places and while my dogs can dig their nails in to get traction in wet weather, I do not have this option. I could do with crampons for my boots to create the same effect, not that I will ever be able to match their agility. Some old stone walls have been repaired and added to but as they are just a few feet high they give little protection. This is not a complaint as I will take any shelter that I can get (as do the plants) but it means that when I moved here eight years ago my gardening of necessity consisted of planting and maintaining hedgerows. Not only do these now provide shelter to parts of the garden but they are a haven to a variety of birds at all times of the year. Blackbirds, thrushes and pheasants particularly like the hedgerow on the driveway where they are safe from the attention of my dogs. The robins and wrens stick closer to the house and the goldfinches descend on the fruit garden in early winter.
24 December 2019
Last night we had the fourth thunderstorm since Atiyah. Although it started in the middle of the night, I was alerted to its presence by my dogs who are an excellent early warning system. This is useful as thunderstorms require an indoor ritual as well as those associated with the garden. This includes unplugging the telephone and modem, arranging battery lights in strategic places and filling a flask with hot water. Candlelight is romantic but not very efficient for reading. I have lost too many telephones and modems to count thanks to the presence of copper in the peninsula and it is amazing how much you crave a hot drink as soon as you lose power and know that you cannot have one. My Christmas present to myself is a battery radio. I lost power for four hours during storm Atiyah and while I would usually enjoy the silence four hours of thunder and lightning turned one of my dogs into a quivering wreck. A week later with full power maintained I was able to drown out most of the noise of the storm with music in one room and a noisy TV show in another hence the new radio.
In recent weeks the thunderstorms have been preceded, accompanied and followed by torrential rain. My garden is waterlogged and I am beginning to think that I should have asked for flippers for Christmas to complete my gardening footwear. We have already experienced heavy frosts on at least four occasions including two in early October. Frost is unusual here so close to the sea and is most likely to occur in January and February. It is even more surprising then that I can still find some surprises to grace the Christmas table. These have to be searched for very carefully as sometimes just one is hiding in the foliage of the plant. This year I have managed a posy of Geum, Hebe, Hypericum, French lavender and lavatera.
St Stephen’s Day
As the winds howl around the house and we head towards 2020 and possibly even more severe climate change I think that my garden will be faced with even more extreme and challenging events. The above tiny flowers blooming at Christmas against all the odds are a constant reminder that they may prove to be even more resilient than expected.