Wednesday 26 December 2007

Christmas Greetings!

Every Blessing for Christmas

and throughout 2008

Gaudenzio Ferrari, Glory of Angels, in Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Saronno

Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace, good will toward men and women!

from Joakim and Susanna

Tuesday 31 July 2007

God in the Garden in July – Fruits

Summer has arrived at last, after twelve weeks with at least a little rain every day, I think. Of course we haven’t suffered as badly as so many in England. I offer a prayer for those with flooded houses, farms and businesses. But I was blessed with sun for my commisssioning as a Reader last Sunday, and it has been sunny and dry since, thank God for it.

Today I attacked the fan-trained Victoria plum. ‘Pinch the side shoots back to six leaves in July’, advises the pruning guide, ‘and after harvest cut back to half their length’. That may be the ideal if you’ve kept the fan properly, but I have let it overgrow, and it’s grafted on too vigorous a root-stock for the space allowed it. So I just hack it to size and trim it to my best judgement. There’s a good set of fruit, but as usual I notice some with the drop of resin that betrays the plum sawfly grub inside. The pears and apples too have set well. The raspberries and loganberries are finished, but I’ve just picked a good bowl of blackcurrants. Not a big yield from four bushes, but sufficient for a summer-pudding. They are quite overgrown by goat-willows eight feet tall that should have been dug out ages ago, which is why the yield is poor – proving that open ground here will revert to willow scrub within five years if it isn’t mowed or cultivated!

The fruit swells too on the wildlings, the damsons, sloes, elderberries and brambles in the hedge, and the Whitebeam and Spindle in the wilderness. The berries on the Mountain Ash and the Guelder Rose are starting to colour, as are the haws. Autumn is almost upon us, before we have had time to enjoy the Summer!

To my surprise I see that several of our young trees are also starting to fruit. There were seeds on one of the Limes in the Alley last year, but this year there are acorns on one of the hybrid oaks, grown from seed collected in the Botanical Gardens in Glasnevin. There are also cones on Cupressus goveniana grown from seed collected in California, on Cunninghamia lanceolata ‘Glauca’ bought as a seedling at an IGPS plant sale, and on Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’ given to Susanna by a friend and barely four-foot tall. I think most gardeners feel their trees are a bit like children, but it seems Joakim may not have to wait too long for trees like grandchildren!

To my great joy three real grandsons, Cal, Gabe and Finn, came to stay for my commissioning. It was lovely to watch them playing together in the garden, cousins reforging old friendships. One game they played they called ‘mob’, a name new to me, but a kind of tag in which the one who was ‘it’ had to touch the last tree in the Lime alley without being caught by the others. So much hiding and stalking, and squealing, frantic dashes down the paths and through the wilderness. Now they’re gone, I’m surprised to see how little damage the garden has suffered: a small boot print in a flowerbed here, a broken branch on a shrub there, nothing of any consequence. This is what the garden was made for! They too are fruits; fruits of love, the apples of my eye. Some of the loves that went to make them are broken now, but I pray they never doubt their origins in love.

Not all fruits are good to eat. After the commissioning service, the boys were clambering in the old Laburnum trees beside the Church, and discovered the pods full of seeds like tiny little peas. Forgetting mother’s warnings, two of them ate some of the very poisonous seeds. They had to be rushed to A&E, where I’m glad to say they were given very nasty activated charcoal to drink, to neutralise the poison. They are all fine now, thank God, but they won’t be such silly boys again I’m sure!

Paul in Galatians describes the fruits of the Spirit as ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’. Please God these fruits will flourish in this garden too.

Sunday 24 June 2007

God in the Garden in June – Midsummer Madness

A midsummer day lasts 17 hours here, and the night only 7. I love the long bright mid summer evenings: the sun will set after 10 pm, and it will still be twilight at 11. I give thanks to God that we live so far west in our time zone!

On the summer solstice it poured and it blew, so different to the bright sun and balmy warmth of the winter solstice last December. This June has been unusually wet and grey, which has rather delayed my getting to grips with the garden after my recent absence on the hustings. I’m still clearing the autumn bed for the dahlias and tender salvias. I’m close to giving up on the vegetable garden, though I still hope to get in a few rows of beans and peas.

In the gaps between the showers, I’ve been out looking for bees, prompted by a fine website set up by researchers at TCD (google ‘Trinity bees’). We have 101 bee species in Ireland, including 1 native honeybee and 19 bumblebees. Very many of them are in serious decline. I found two common bumblebees in the garden, the white tailed and the common carder, and I was also delighted to find the red tailed, which is supposed to be becoming scarce. After days of searching at last I saw a single honeybee. It is very disturbing that this species once so common is now hard to find. The Varroa mite is said to have wiped out many wild colonies, and I suppose no one locally keeps bees any more.

Where the bees suck, there suck I’, sings Ariel in Shakespeare’s Tempest. Earlier the bumblebees busily worked Susanna’s tall foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea in purple, pink and white forms), now nearly over. Then they moved to the smaller perennial D. obscura from Spain, with its yellow foxglove-flowers marked inside with red veins. The tiny lemon yellow blossoms of D. lutea from Italy seemed to defeat them – it was rather pathetic to watch a big bee trying to squeeze itself into a flower half its girth! Now they are starting on Penstemon ‘Garnet’, a foxglove relative from America, in which they fit snugly.

Great excitement: Susanna’s Cornus capitata trees, grown from seed given her in South Africa ten years ago, are flowering for the first time. Just a few flowers, but I hope a promise of more in future years. The tiny green flowers, surrounded by creamy yellow bracts two inches long, will be followed by red fruit clusters looking like large strawberries. Now 10 foot high, the trees should grow to around 40 foot, if not killed by frost - they are reputed to be a little tender. Please God we and they will be spared long enough to see them put on a big show!

As I go down to cut some artichokes for supper, I spot green and silver caterpillars eating the last leaves and developing seed pods on the Dames Violet (Hesperis matronalis). Unsure what they are, when I look them up I find they are larvae of the Orange Tip butterfly. I stop to look around when I hear some soft but urgent bird-calls. I catch sight of the bright carmine breast of a cock bullfinch, a flash of wing betrays the hen, and then I realise the calls are from several fledglings, just out of the nest. This is the most dangerous time of their young lives, and I hope they make it, but I also hope they will leave a few caterpillars to grow into butterflies to enchant us next spring!

Tonight is St John’s Eve, tomorrow is the feast of the birth of John the Baptist, six months before the birth of Jesus at Christmas, as Luke tells us. Country people used to celebrate it by lighting bonfires, making merry and indulging in all sorts of midsummer high jinks. But this ancient custom has its roots in pre-Christian times. Midsummer Night was when the Celts celebrated Áine, a Goddess of love and growth associated with light and the sun. Later she was Christianised as Naomh Áine and rituals in her honour took place until the nineteenth century on Knockainy (Cnoc Áine – the Hill of Áine) in County Limerick. Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream also celebrates midsummer madness. And in the 21st century, we celebrate it still – Susanna and I will go to the Midsummer Ball tonight, where we too will make merry and indulge in midsummer high jinks, dancing till dawn with our friends.

Thursday 31 May 2007

God in the Garden in May – Praying for Victory

It’s Bertie’s fault for calling a May Election, as my every waking hour is taken up with the campaign: oh, the frustration of not having the time to garden in May! Flower beds are uncultivated and vegetables unplanted. The lawns turn into meadows as the grasses flower: soon a scythe will be needed not a lawn mower! Susanna and I have been away in May before, and each time we swear never again, but this year is worse - I’m here to watch as weeds take over!

Yet still, thank God, returning from the campaign to pour myself a large glass of wine and walk around the garden, there is so much of beauty and interest to help me unwind. Rambling rose Neige d’Avril is particularly spectacular this year because I did not prune it earlier, a white snowdrift over the arch to the patio; and I’m delighted by other early roses, including Souvenir de St Annes, and Madame Gregoire Staechelin. Foxgloves and lupins make Susanna’s Labyrinth spiky but beautiful this year. Once again I marvel at how Cotinus Royal Purple with an acid-green Euphorbia, and native Bloody Cranesbill Geranium sanguineum, set each other off – a happy combination that I wish I could say was planned! Yellow flowered turnips and white flowered radishes are bolting in the raised beds alongside blue drifts of Forget-me-not which were not planted out in the autumn – even my indolence is forgiven it seems.

My thoughts turn to Balfour Brickner. I found his book Finding God in the Garden (subtitled Backyard Reflections on Life, Love and Compost) when I googled my own blog to see if the search engines had found it. I ordered it immediately from Amazon, and I recommend it highly. A Rabbi associated with Reform Judaism in New York, he retired to tend a garden in Massachusetts. The wise thoughts his gardening prompted show that he and I worship the same loving-father God. Rooted in his own tradition, as I see it he does not recognise the full flowering of the God we share in the other two persons of the Trinity – but he would not agree with me. I was sad to discover that he died a couple of years ago, because I would have loved to talk to him about it.

One profound insight he has given me is this: ‘God does not need our prayers – we do’. Which gets me thinking about the nature of prayer. Politically engaged as I am, can I pray for the success of my candidate in this general election? I could not support her as I do if I did not think that her election would be a step, albeit a small one, toward God’s kingdom. But I can see that other Christians might take the same view about other candidates. How can I expect God to favour my prayers above those of others?

As ever, I think Jesus gives us the key. In the garden of Gethsemane, he prayed for himself: 'My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want'. We are allowed to pray for what we want, to offer to God what we see as our deep wishes and needs, but only if we also accept that our loving-father God's wishes are what really matters.

Postscript: In his wisdom God did not answer my prayer; my candidate was not elected. It is God's will that matters.

Thursday 19 April 2007

God in the Garden in April: Variety and Variation

Oh how we have been blessed with fine weather and sunshine since Easter! Growth is bounding ahead, but with Election duties I find I cannot give the garden the time it needs: the weeds will look after themselves until they threaten to seed, I fear, and the grass will grow longer than usual. But we badly need rain: my heavy clay soil is already starting to break into hexagonal cracks, down which the rain when it comes will simply vanish. Susanna has already been seen out with the hose. We gardeners are an ungrateful lot, aren’t we, never satisfied with what the good Lord sends!

But there are reasons in variety to be grateful even so. Magnolia ‘Leonard Messel’ planted last spring, one of the few of the tribe to tolerate a limestone soil, delights me from my study window with its delicate pale pink stars before the leaves.

Western Redbud, Cercis occidentalis, is a Judas tree from California: grown from seed by Susanna, its pea flowers sprout purple-pink straight from the bare wood, harmonising with new bronze shoots.

And mixed red and yellow ‘Apeldoorn’ tulips blaze through a crescent moon of grass in Susanna’s labyrinth garden, smiling wide in the sunshine to show the black marks inside their petals.

Every tree in the lime alley is in a different stage of bud-burst, some in full brilliant green leaf, some just starting to show, and one yet to show at all. The nursery-man told me he grew the plants from seed, not cuttings, and it shows. This variability suits the species in the wild, because it allows individuals to adapt to the micro-climate of the site: early starters will be favoured in sheltered sites, and late starters in exposed. I suppose such variability will help the species adapt to our warming climate, as it has adapted before to the ebb and flow of the ice-ages.

And the different fruit blossoms are following one after the other, providing a phased supply of nectar to hoverflies and bees, in return for their pollinating services. As well as delighting our eyes, we can enjoy in anticipation the delicious fruit to come. First to flower were the blackthorn and then the bullace or damson in the hedges, rapidly followed by the Victoria plum. Now they are going over, and their place is taken by the cherries, the wild Prunus avium and the cultivated 'Morello', and the pears. And the apples are just starting.
Pear Blossom, Apple Blossom, Morello Cherry Blossom

All of these belong to the great plant family Rosacea, which also includes apricots, peaches, medlars, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries, as well as roses. Why is it, I wonder, that so many of the fruits we enjoy belong to this rose family? I imagine an exceptionally robust and stable three cornered relationship formed by their distant common ancestor, with the ancestors of the insects which pollinate them, and the ancestors of the birds and mammals which distribute their seeds. By the grace of God, a natural variability, like the variability of the lime, did the rest. A host of rose descendents radiated out in the tree of life, dancing with a host of evolving pollinators and seed distributors, all satisfying each other’s needs. And fruiting plants, insects and human kind continue to dance variations on this same dance.

O all ye works of the Lord bless ye the Lord:
Praise him and magnify him for ever!

Monday 19 March 2007

March 2007 - The Green Wave

Today is St Patrick’s Day. Peering through drifting drizzle, my heart goes out to all those parading to celebrate our national Saint and all things Irish, particularly the visitors from afar in skimpy marching-band costumes. Shivering and dripping, I learned my lesson in previous years, so I limit myself to pinning on a few trefoil leaves, Patrick’s metaphor for the Trinity, and going to church, while Susanna retires under the duvet to avoid the dismal day. Fat chance of getting any work done in the garden as I’d planned!

In theory, the job for today should be planting a row of first early potatoes. The old tradition was to put them in on Patrick’s day, for an early first harvest in June. But my heavy clay is always too sodden to work, the soil is too cold, and even if the tubers don’t rot, the first shoots can still be cut by frost until mid May. I think the tradition more suited to Wexford than the Midlands, unless global warming changes things. The potatoes are chitting in the greenhouse, but the end of March will do for planting this year.

Frost and snow are forecast, a brief return to winter. But spring races ahead, unstoppable, as the days lengthen to the equinox. The grass I can’t get out to cut grows ever faster. The daffodils along the drive wave cheerfully in the chill wind – old varieties, they came as volunteers in the topsoil when we built the extension. Lavender Iris stylosa sits in a vase on the kitchen worktop. Susanna’s sweet peas reach upward on the windowsills – soon they will need beheading to promote shrubby, branching plants, ready for planting in May. The first blackthorn blooms in the hedge – old Shannon fishing lore says the fly will be up in four weeks to the day in sheltered bays. Fat fruiting buds on the pears are set to burst. And the first leaves are out already on the Amur maple (Acer ginnala), though I expect to find them shrivelled by the frost.

We are told that if you could look at Europe from outer space, you would see a Green Wave moving north across the continent in spring, caused by the buds on the trees and hedges opening. The Green Wave begins in the south in February and moves up across the continent as temperatures rise, at about 160 kilometres per week. If this is true, it should take about three weeks to move across Ireland from Mizen Head to Malin Head, about the same speed as you might walk. School children across Ireland are joining in a mass experiment to check this, by dating locally the first appearance of five signs of the Green Wave:
  • the first primroses,
  • the first swallows,

and leaves opening on three common trees:

  • Horse Chestnut,
  • Hawthorn
  • and Ash.

Repeated year after year, this can provide a scientific measurement of the effect of global warming. To find out more, see

The little drama of spring burgeoning in my garden is just a small part of the greater drama of the Green Wave, unfolding across Ireland, Europe and the temperate world. And this is mirrored in the great drama of our Faith. Starting in Lent, Jesus leads his disciples to travel the road to Jerusalem, a road that leads inexorably to the Cross and Resurrection, on to Ascension, and then to Pentecost, when the Spirit bursts forth and changes everything.

Sunday 18 February 2007

February 2007 - A Doxology

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;

This morning Susanna and I breakfasted on poached eggs with asparagus! Not a lot of asparagus – just three fat spears, more white than green – but taken from our own poly-tunnel, coarsely chopped, gently stewed in a little butter, and poured over the eggs and toast. A blessing indeed, a taste of heaven!

There is warmth already in the sun: it is as if the morning’s hoarfrost had never been. Tiny shocking-pink flowers of Cyclamen coum glow under the espalier pears.

Down the avenue, Crocus x luteus flares sodium-orange in the sun, and further on the little species Crocus chrysanthus looks like cream spilt over the short grass. The clumps are bulking-up well, but do not seem to be spreading as I hoped. Looking closely, the delicate petals are torn and eaten, no doubt by slugs that also eat the seed capsules. I suppose I must help nature along by planting more corms to achieve a really big display.

Clumps of Lenten roses, Helleborus orientalis, in mixed shades of white and pink and burgandy, started from seed by Susanna, glow under the young trees and shrubs along the wilderness path. Years ago a friend gave me a seedling plant of Stinking helebore, Helleborus foetidus. Its unusual cymes of acid-green flowers are starting to open, and there are several seedlings from last year around it, which will give me plants to swell the display and pass on in turn to other friends.

Praise Him, all creatures here below;

I turn to look for signs of creatures here below. I look under a garden ornament, and sure enough there are the slugs and snails that have been at the crocuses, and a centipede too. No doubt they add their praises to mine in their own way. But part of me wishes they didn’t!

The fox’s path by the hedge is looking rather overgrown. I’ve not seen him since the New Year’s Day hunt passed close by, but I heard nothing of a kill. The garden hare too is nowhere to be seen, but I did put him up from the black-currant patch a little while ago. I pray they are both in a position to praise their maker.

But what I do find is five-spot ladybirds on the young pines, where they have emerged from their crevices to bask in the sun. Their red colour is a warning sign to anyone thinking to eat them, but to my eyes is also a joyful hymn of praise.

Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;

Whatever about the creatures below, the heavenly host are certainly loud. It sounds as if every small finch and tit in the County has chosen this garden for You’re-a-star auditions! The racket is unbelievable, but lifts the spirit like few other things can. With the onset of the hard frost, Susanna has started to feed them with bird seed and lard balls, which perhaps explains why there are so many. But at this time of year I’m sure the words of their song are: ‘Here I am! I’m fit and healthy! We can make beautiful babies together!’

With country all around us, we are so lucky to see and hear so many varieties of the heavenly host. Yesterday at dusk the great armada of rooks flew over, returning to their roost from a day’s foraging, calling the gossip back and forth to each other. And drifting across the fields came the indescribably sad call of a curlew.

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Sunday 21 January 2007

January 2007 - Signs of Global Warming?

Rain and wind, wind and rain – what a time of it we are having this January! But this winter is still amazingly mild – a couple of mornings of hard frost in November, but barely a ground frost since. Summer bedding Nicotiana is still in blossom by the back door, and a Dianthus in Suzanna’s labyrinth garden – I have never seen the like before. Like everyone else I’m sure, I wonder whether these are signs of global warming.

Today the rain has stopped, and the sky is bright, but the wind is still blowing a gale. I offer a little prayer for the families of the fishermen lost in the Pere Charles and the Honeydew II, and go out to check the garden for damage. A young Monterey pine, Pinus radiata, grown from seed collected by the sea at Monterey, is listing alarmingly: I didn’t stake it properly and must do so now. In their Californian home they also suffer wild Pacific gales, and typically survive clinging to the earth at crazy angles, but I want to see a straight tree standing proud in my garden! A Cordyline is also leaning, propped up by an Olearia shrub behind it.

It is more than a week since I checked the vegetable garden. The spring cabbage is looking good, and hasn’t been blown out of the ground as I feared. The sprouting broccoli has put out good spears, some of which have started to show yellow flowers, and I pick a good bunch. They will be delicious first fruits of the year, steamed and tossed in butter with a little pepper. I have never had broccoli so early: is it the variety, or global warming again?

Have you ever noticed that the Book of Genesis gives us alternative stories of the purpose for which God created humankind? Chapter 1 tells us that we are created to have dominion over the animal kingdom, and Chapter 2 to till and keep the Garden of Eden. Our modern civilisation has placed too much emphasis on the dominion and not enough on the tilling and keeping, I think. We use God’s promise of dominion to excuse our greed for resources, and ignore God’s injunction to conserve our fragile world. The result: the intensifying ecological catastrophe of global warming. What foolish, sinful people we are: we must mend our ways before we are ejected from Eden!

December 2006 - Pruning in the Sun

After what feels like weeks of rain, at last, a dry day, for the winter solstice! The sky is a heavenly blue, without cloud. In the sun, with no wind, it is almost warm: can I find any signs of the turning of the season? I pull on my green boots, and go out to check on the lower garden. Surprisingly the avenue lawn is quite dry. No sign of life yet from the daffodils I planted this autumn around the wildflower meadow, nor from the crocuses of previous years. Just as well, because I should run the mower over them one more time, so their flowers, when they come, are not concealed by rough grass. But soon, soon: Spring will come soon!

Walking back up the Lime alley, the twigs glow scarlet in the low December light against the blue sky. A ravishing sight. The ten foot saplings Susanna and I planted four years ago, brought bare-rooted in a trailer from a nurseryman friend in Clara, are now approaching 18 feet. I realise this is the ideal afternoon to do the job I should have done last year, to ‘raise their skirts’. The lower branches reach out at eye level, threatening injury and partially blocking the paths. They must be cut out now, before the sap rises in Spring, so that the higher branches will make a canopy under which we can walk in years to come. I fetch the pruning shears and the saw and start work. I feel like a butcher as I cut out the stout branches and crossed stems. But the job must be done: the trees will be better for it in years to come. The stumps of branches look untidy and raw, gashed wounds on the silver trunks. I remind myself how important it is to leave a good collar around the stumps: the collar will grow out to seal the wound with bark as the stump of the branch dies and falls away. If I cut through the collar, the tree will struggle to heal the larger wound, and rots and fungi may gain entry to sicken or kill the tree. It is better this way, even though it will look untidy for a while.

The work makes me warm. I take off my fleece, stopping for a moment to enjoy the sunshine. I marvel and give thanks for the wonderful golden light, today of all days, the shortest day of the year. It is a herald, a reminder that in four days time, in St John’s words, ‘the true light that enlightens everyone, is coming into the world’.