January 2018.  happy new year to you all. it seems like a pertinent month to go all Janus and look backwards over the past 6 months and forward over what stuff is to come in the new year we’ve had some wild weather here in ireland and by the looks of the news – there is unfortunately a lot of it about. myself and joe find it hard to believe that we only planted the little whips of hedging and trees 3 years ago this february. they are such strong, big, vigorous plants already with only those 3 years of growth in them.  it goes to show that when planting trees the idea of planting small whips works infinitely better than trying to buy as big a plant as you can. going that route has always given me a much, much slower growing and an expensive and struggling plant, possibly due to the shock of it all…

we had storm ophelia pass through in the late autumn last year.  she really did a number on a lot of the ancient trees around here in wexford as well as across the whole of ireland, but the only tree to really take a hit in the forest garden was my hawthorn at the centre of my wishing circle.  and it didnt take it all down, just half of it….bit strange as it was surrounded by all the other much bigger birch trees and the hedging and wind breaks and really is the central tree in the garden – but it took the hit nevertheless!   I’m reluctant to take it out and start again, so i think I’m going to leave her in and let her grow and I’m sure she’ll give us an interesting non conformist shape over the coming years….

the teasels which took up residence on half of my hugelkulture structure took a beating but remained standing tall. I’ve left them in as the birds – especially the goldfinches – are still eating whats left of the seeds.  ill take them down soon and then I’m sure ill spend a lot of the spring trying to remove the hundreds of tiny teasel plants that will have undoubtedly seeded themselves around the garden…likewise the aarons rod which seemed to come out of nowhere but anchored themselves firmly into the hugle and stayed put through the wild weather. i guess they have more bend and sway in them than most even though they are solid 6 foot structures!

it seems like we are finally getting on top of the couch grass situation – although even writing that i feel like I’m going to hex it and it’ll come back stronger than ever when my backs turned for 2 seconds..  at the end of last summer with a really handy bunch of rotten hay and a tonne of cardboard, i did a very deep layer of cardboard and hay mulch to really supress it.  i did this in the bottom 3rd of the garden and in a top section too.  we’re still trying to figure out what is best for us in this climate, but if you have a deep, deep layer of mulch and you keep on top of any of the grass that finds the light and pokes up above ground – this system does work.  you can then plant down through it and clear little spaces when you need to get any shrubs or other plants in the ground.  our downside in this part of the world is that the hay really does rot down very quickly, probably not in small measure to the amount of rain we get here..anyways – in a couple of areas of the garden this really has worked and leaves a beautiful bit of soil underneath once you pull away the strangled grass.

we prepped a good few veg beds by removing some of the hay mulch that snaked either side of a path.  we then got down on our knee pads and used our hands and small pokey implements to remove the perennial weeds that were struggling to grow having been starved of the light.  we pulled up lots of weak couch grass too and cleared the beds that way. it was a job and a half but we’ve made a compost heap for just this grass and in a few years I’m sure we’ll have the last laugh on that bloody grass when its rotted down good and proper!   we then (i say ‘we’ but this was mostly joe) planted directly into the soil.   after planting, the bare earth was covered with a layer of compost and left to do its thing.  we’ve found the straw to cover bare soil where we are planting our veg crops is too much of a safe harbour for the slugs, and the compost has worked best. for our annual crops of veg this year it worked really well and we got a really good crop without too much effort.  its always so very satisfying eating your own thing you’ve grown as I’m sure most of you know…if you don’t – then start with a runner bean or two and try it…  using this no dig method we’ve had celery, onions, swede, broccoli, cauliflower, garlic, leeks, carrots, parsnips, broad beans, peas, sweetcorn, sprouts, savoy and regular cabbage, kale, runner beans (which i must admit i did get a little bored off after 3 weeks straight of eating..) and i still have swedes in the garden looking strangely misshapen and challenging…there is only so much swede a person can take..

one crop that struggled was the potatoes.  that started well but got totally blighted so we didnt get what we expected out of those beds but hopefully this year, we’ll try a different method and we hope get  a better harvest. time will tell.

my mum and dad bought me a set of 12 artichoke plants over from the uk so i made a nice artichoke bed with those and they have gone mad. they’re lovely plants and when left to go to seed are really beautiful too.  i forget they are really big thistles and when they’re in purple flower the bees love them.  nice big structural thing too.

our fruit bushes did really well this year too.  the birds bided their time, lulled me into a false sense of security and then swooped in at the perfect moment and really enjoyed the majority of them…especially my boysenberries.  i was so looking forward to eating these boysenberries, never really having had any before, and i had a HUGE crop that was ripening through the summer.  its a beautiful white fragrant flower which the bees loved and then this really big juicy berry that forms after.  you really have to leave them til they hit the dark marroony slightly squidgey stage when they’re easier to get off of the extremely vicious plant.  i left mine as long as i could and i thought – great – the birds are leaving them all well alone ill get out and harvest them tomorrow.  but literally within 24 hours they were all gone.  they obviously had their beady little eyes on them too and got up earlier than me to have a feast…i hope they enjoyed them. the few hidden ones they left for me i did enjoy but i had plans of a jammy nature for those big berries and it was not to be!

as the boysenberry plants really are so nasty to deal with in terms of the thorns, this year I’m training a couple of the new shoots along wire.  then, when the time comes i can cover them easier with something to try and keep most of them berries for us and not the sneaky birds.  they also enjoyed most of my gooseberries and black and white currents.  again – next year ill be more prepared. i thought there was plenty to go around for us all birds, animals and humans alike – but obviously not.  they don’t seem to have any sense of fair play those birds…

my goji berry bushes have gone mad and i am having to cut them back a good bit. but the berry crop increased three fold – from one lone berry last year to three this year! going in the right direction i guess but and I’m hoping that after year 3 they might start doing something a bit more useful.  same with the jostaberry bushes. they are growing and put out leaves and the odd flower but no real berries on those yet. again, i think they might take a few years to get established before throwing out some fruit.

raspberries and strawbs – no issues there. just trying to contain them really as they would take over the whole garden if i left them alone.  luckily we all love a raspberry. interestingly enough, the golden autumn rasps that we planted were totally left alone by the birds. they dont see that colour as something good to eat it would seem so we had a real good crop of them. they rarely make it past the garden gate and into the kitchen…too good a snack idea when youre out there working…i did manage to harvest a lot of wild strawbs though and made a good jam out of them. they’re a great little ground cover plant and a very sweet little fruit too.

we had a handful of nuts from the tree but nothing to fill your stomach with yet.  have to wait a while for that to kick in good and proper plus the fact that I’ve spotted a little squirrel scooting about the place recently too – funnily enough – around nut harvest time….don’t ever see them around here but maybe words out…

the new plants that we are going to try this year are babbingtons leeks which are a perennial leek/onion plant.  I’ve put some chinese dogwood in too which should make a large shrub or small tree. edible berries, lovely looking plant and edible young leaves too. we’re trying a ground cover raspberry to go along with our ground cover wild strawberries.  got that from martin crawfords agroforestry research shop. and i also got a little chilean guava shrub which has edible berries. they should apparently go in our irish climate, but we’ll leave the jury out until we can see it ourselves.  From seeds too we are going to try the following as the actual plants were too expensive to ship in from the uk and we could easily source them in ireland.  these are a lot of plants that the flowers or leaves have edible or medicinal purposes, so worth trying in this garden. Arnica, Marsh Mallow, Chicory, Pink Purslane, Sweet Cecily, Elecampagne, Good King Henry, Lovage, Salsify, Scorzonera, Nine star broccoli, Musk mallow, winter savoury and salad burnt.  we might even try some oca which is a little tuber from south america that is really very tasty. never seen any before but mary showed me some and they should indeed grow much like a spud, so worth giving them a go too.

as a nature lover, I’m delighted with the amount of wildlife that i see around and about the place. i really do have a tonne of birds that i wouldn’t normally expect to see very often.  they seem to love this spot. i even had a mother and young son greater spotted woodpecker visit the garden regularly there in the late summer.  these are birds that are not supposed to be in ireland at all, but they must be re-establishing themselves which is great.  of course theres always the little field mice that pop their heads out of the place every now and then and any amount of frogs which i hope will help keep the slug population under control.  hedgehogs too take a ramble through it would seem and are known for their slug munching efforts.  i have a hare that comes a knocking to see if theres any nice bark to nibble on, or fresh shoots to eat, but usually the jacks will chase him off.  I’ve even had a bold as you like fox come in and pick off my poor old chickens in the early winter last year.  i actually got a picture of him as he strolled nonchalantly past my window with sweetie dangling from his mouth and a big fat belly on him…at least the fox family ate very, very well that week.

there has to be something in the fact that we’re of course trying to create a garden that feeds our family (and we really did do pretty well this year in terms of veg as I’ve only just started to buy green veg in the last few weeks), but as well as that trying to work alongside nature and not kill it or fight it by pouring pesticides or herbicides into the ground.  i know we’re in a very lucky position whereby we can go down to the shop and buy what we need to supplement our food needs but i don’t think its going to be that long – with more experience and trial and error – that we are in a position to meet most of our fresh veg and soft fruit needs ourself for a goodly part of the year.   next year i can see myself having to either get very good at freezing or pickling excess produce – one can only hope anyway!  or those that live near me, your birthday and christmas presents might consist of heads of broccoli and beans…lots of beans….and hopefully a nice jar of boysenberry jam.