Thursday, 7 April 2022

God in the Garden in April

This article appeared in the April 2022 issue of Newslink, the diocesan magazine for Limerick and Killaloe, part of the United Diocese of Tuam, Limerick & Killaloe. Photos by Joc Sanders

Soft pink flowers of Magnolia 'Leonard Messel'

Usually at this time of year my spirits are high as I watch the new life of Spring accelerate away. But this year is different – my spirits are low. A part of God’s wider garden is being ripped apart as I write in mid-March. We are watching the crucifixion of the people of Ukraine. The news is full of images of wrecked apartment buildings, images of men saying goodbye to weeping wives and children fleeing as refugees, images of men and women in uniform preparing to kill other men and women in any way they can.

Ordinary people and governments here in Ireland and throughout Europe are responding with extraordinary generosity, collecting goods and money to help Ukrainian refugees and to provide humanitarian aid. But images of destruction and refugees from wars in Syria, Yemen and Ethiopia have not elicited quite the same generous response. Is it because the disaster in Ukraine is happening close to us in Europe, to people who look so much like us? Are we unduly partial in our response?

Meanwhile, NATO Governments seem intent to feed just enough weapons into Ukraine to keep the fighting going, to weaken Russia without risking a wider, even more destructive war, possibly a nuclear one. We do not know how this war will end, but we do know that the economic sanctions already imposed will make life difficult for us all, not just in Russia, but here in Ireland and throughout the world.

We see evil manifested in Russia’s attack on Ukraine, but it is not the Russian people who are evil, any more than the Ukrainian people are. As Christians, we must pray not just for the people of Ukraine, but also of Russia, and for an early negotiated peace. We must pray for the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus, of Russia and NATO, that hard and warlike hearts may be softened, that they are led into God’s paths of peace and justice. And we must pray for grace for ourselves to resist evil and do God’s will.

Yet, as well as evil there is hope in God’s garden. Evil will not triumph in the end. Easter will soon be with us, bringing a triumphant resurrection. Our fields and gardens are burgeoning. In April we will see the victory of life over death re-enacted once again in the growth of our crops, the blooming of fruit trees and the beauty of flowers. Here are a few images taken last April in the garden I share with my wife Marty, where God is always to be found.

A yellow tree peony sheds light in a shady corner

Cherry blossom opens before the leaves

Red and yellow Apeldoorn tulips naturalised in grass

Thursday, 1 July 2021

Change and continuity in a country graveyard

From the July/August 2021 edition of Newslink, the diocesan magazine for Limerick & Killaloe

Killodiernan church in its ever changing flowering graveyard

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” Matthew 6:28,29.

Here in Ireland as in so much of the world, within my lifetime, modern farming practices – crop monocultures, weed killers, insecticides - have gravely damaged the wonderful diversity of life in our fields and forests. We have been making a mess of the beautiful living planet God has given us – I call it out as blasphemy.

Yet some special places remain where we can still experience something of what has been lost. Old graveyards are often the last pieces of unimproved grassland in the neighbourhood, and Killodiernan in North Tipperary, 5km from my home, is one such. The short turf is densely packed with a multitude of wildflowers and grasses growing as a sustainable community, which emerge and bloom in succession throughout the season, before being mown in the autumn. 

In mid-June the graveyard is yellow with birdsfoot trefoil,
mouse-ear hawkweed and buttercups

The succession begins in April with primroses and cowslips. In May the early purple orchids star, alongside blue bugle, and wispy white clouds of pignut. Now in mid-June, the graveyard has turned yellow with bird’s foot trefoil, bulbous buttercup and mouse-ear hawkweed, amid the dainty waving heads of quaking grass, dog daisies, and two types of orchid – common spotted and a multitude of twayblades. Other species will take over in succession to them, until late summer paints the graveyard blue with devils-bit scabious. 

A splash of pink from a common spotted orchid in mid-June

This is a rare survival, an ever-changing tapestry of colour and texture, preserved by the accident of the church being built here. It is managed sensitively by the church wardens for wildlife. Other local pastures must have looked like this to the delight of our forebears for hundreds of years, before they were reseeded with ryegrass and fertilised to maximize productivity.

The graveyard is home to scores of twayblade orchids
with flowers like little green men

This type of grassland is not natural, however. The climax vegetation after the last glaciation would have been woodland. What we see now is the work of human beings over millennia, who felled the trees and worked with the grain of nature to make a living from the land. And since the graveyard was enclosed, generations of faithful worshippers have left their mark too by planting other exotic flowers, including snowdrops, daffodils and bluebells, montbretia and fairy foxgloves, now naturalised. What we see now is a product of both change and continuity.

Killodiernan church itself is a product of both change and continuity. The present building dates from 1811, replacing the medieval parish church a mile away, in ruins since the 17th Century. It was built to hold 120 people as a simple barn-church with tower and small gallery, with a grant from the Board of First Fruits. Over the years succeeding generations have extended the church, reorganised the interior, and still lovingly maintain it. 

We will experience a lot more change in future, as our wider society confronts the challenges of global heating and biodiversity loss, and the Church adapts to new circumstances. A new world is coming into being in our generation. Change may make us anxious, but we must not let anxiety overwhelm us. We are enfolded in the love of the God whom Jesus calls Father, and we are guided by the Holy Spirit. Let us seek to preserve what is good and true and beautiful from the past, while we make the new world more like God’s kingdom than the old world we leave behind. 

There will be change, but there will also be continuity.

Saturday, 1 May 2021

The three-cornered dance of life

This short piece was submiited for the May 2021 issue of Newslink, the Diocesan Magazine for Limerick & Killaloe

How blessed we have been by our gardens in this second Spring of Covid lockdown! The early bulbs - the snowdrops, the crocuses, the daffodils – seemed brighter and more numerous than ever this year. As I write it is the turn of primroses, cowslips and tulips to star. Dandelions are everywhere, so bright and cheerful – if they were rare and difficult to grow, gardeners would pay fortunes for them. And I have been harvesting purple sprouting broccoli, and the first asparagus from the polytunnel - so much tastier than that from the supermarket.

Bees feasting on pear blossom as they pollinate the flowers

It is the flowering fruit trees that attract my attention just now. The wild blackthorn, damsons and cherries blooming in the hedgerows promise an autumn feast of jams and flavoured gin, and I trust the birds will leave a few Victoria plums and Morello cherries for puddings. The pear blossom is already fully open, and bees are busy fertilising it, as they gather pollen and nectar to feed their growing young. The apples and the quince are in bud and will be out by the time you read this. I look forward to fine weather so that we will have a good fruit set.

The ravishing pink of apple blossom

This prompts me to reflect on the wonderful three-cornered dance of fruit trees, insects, and fruit eating creatures. The trees offer up pollen and nectar to the pollinating insects to feed them and their young, while the insects return the favour by fertilising the flowers. The trees then bear sweet and tasty fruits, so irresistible to us, while birds and mammals like ourselves spread the trees’ seeds far and wide.

Looking forward to harvest
- Still life with quince, apples and pears by Paul Cézanne

By the grace of God, the trees, insects, birds and mammals have evolved together over millions of years to partake in this communion of life, in which all benefit and no one loses. I see it is an image the kingdom of heaven, reflecting the mutual love and communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in our triune God.

Sunday, 25 April 2021

April Joy

These last days of April are quite magical, with clear skies, warm sunshine, and nature burgeoning all around us. I feel entirely blessed. The garden is filled with bees and other insects, including butterflies. Already I have seen Brimstone butterflies, Holly Blues, Speckled Woods, Orangetips, Small Tortoiseshells and Peacocks. Unfortunately I am not patient enough to try to photograph them, but the plants stay still. Here are some that are giving me joy just now.

The red and yellow Apeldoorn tulips are now at their best, standing up in the grass among the dandelions I must deadhead before they seed any further than they have already.

The buds on the Large-leafed Lime trees in the Lime Alley are just starting to open, not all at the same time, since they were seed propagated by Jan Ravensburg from Clara, who supplied the young trees. There is plenty of natural variation among them, and I am starting to find seedlings here and there.

The Quince tree, variety 'Vranja', gave a good harvest last year. There is even more blossom than last year, and with the fine weather I am hoping for a good fruit-set this year. But I must remember to give it a bucket of water, as they prefer damp ground.

In the 'Wilderness', the native bluebells are spreading around, and I love the arching stems of the Solomon's Seal, with their delicate, drooping yellow-white bells. 

The cowslips are spreading well in the wildflower meadow. There is a good deal of variation in the size of their petals, with some as large as cultivated polyanthus. I suspect their are some genes from the common primrose in them, which usually produces the hybrid known as False Oxlip, with primrose flowers on a long stem. But these retain the classic cowslip colouration. I think I shall try to bring the largest ones into cultivation, away from others and from primroses, to see if I can develop the strain.

But perhaps my greatest joy is the little clump of Coralroot (Cardamine bulbifera) growing in the wildflower meadow. In Ireland it is an extremely rare garden escape. I found it in the old overgrown garden of botanist Patrick Kelly's ruined house outside Ballyvaughan in Co Clare. It reproduces mostly from purple bulbils which form in the leaf axils, rather than from seed. I gathered a few bulbils 2 years ago and grew them on in a pot, which I planted out last year. This year they are flowering for the first time, and I hope I will be able to naturalise them in my garden, as Patrick Kelly did in his.

Saturday, 27 February 2021

What a lovely day!

Todays anticyclonic conditions have made for a lovely day here in North Tipperary - still, dry, with occasional sunny spells, even if chilly enough for a coat when I ventured out in the afternoon to do some tidying up in the garden. Spring is such a lovely time of year, with something new to stop and admire every day. Here are some things that caught my eye today. Thanks be to God!

Mezereon (Daphne mezereum), one of many seedlings in the garden.

The darker primrose behind is Primula vulgaris ssp. sibthorpii from the Balkans, the lighter one in front is its hybrid with our native Irish yellow Primula vulgaris ssp. vulgaris

This lovely miniature daffodil is a true species from Spain, Narcissus asturiensis. I call it the Clonteem daffodil, because my Grandmother brought it with her from the house of that name where she was brought up.

My friend Caleb's Irish black bees (Apis mellifera mellifera) buzzing away at the hive. It is so nice to see them gathering pollen from the spring flowers.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Galanthus 'Hill Poë'

This pretty snowdrop is blooming in Marty's Labyrinth garden just now, where it has been clumping up well for the last couple of years. Its double flowers with 4 to 5 outer petals are almost completely white and surround a double rosette of inner petals, marked with dark green at their tips and along their mid-section, and edged with white. 

It is not far from home, here in Dromineer. Galanthus 'Hill Poë' was discovered in the garden of the old Rectory in Summerhill, Nenagh, Co Tipperary by Mrs Hill-Poë, the Rector's wife back in the C19th. She propogated it and passed it on to friends, from whence it passed into the nursery trade. Now no galanthophile worth his or her salt would be without it.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Living close up

This short piece appeared in the February 2021 issue of Newslink, the Diocesan Magazine for Limerick & Killaloe

The pandemic lockdowns have focussed us all on what is close to us, what is local. We value the little things more for what they are - God-given blessings. As I cocoon myself from the virus, I give thanks for the kindness of friends, neighbours, and staff in local shops, who keep me supplied with the necessities of life. I notice the courtesy of strangers who mask up, and make space for me in supermarkets and on the street, so that both of us may keep a safe distance apart. 

Since I cannot travel to visit wild places with long views, what is close up has become much more important to my spirit. The ever-changing garden I share with Marty my wife is a constant joy - we are blessed by the abundance of life in it. Lockdown must be so much more difficult for those in cramped apartments. 

Just now, as the days lengthen at the end of January, fresh life burgeons in the garden, and there is something new to see every day. Those most at risk are already being vaccinated, and the rest of us will be in due course, if not quite so quickly as we would like. All this gives me hope for the future, hope that once again we will enjoy God’s bounty, hope that we will emerge from the Covid tunnel into the light of a world changed for the better. 

I hope you enjoy these photos of a few of the things giving me joy in the garden just now.

Bright yellow spider-like flowers of Witch Hazel with a sweet scent

Pristine white Christmas roses, blooming through frost and snow since before Christmas

Snowdrops, just starting to open after pushing their way to light through the leaf litter

The Lime alley, with beech and yew hedges neatly trimmed by my good neighbour John