Ease your way into the gardening year – here’s how

Call in an expert for inspiration; visit the best gardens; meet some gardening heroes

Remember the promise you made to yourself some time last summer when you realised with a sharp pang of regret that your garden wasn’t looking as well as it might? Perhaps it was a heartfelt vow to finally sort out that shabby, weed-infested border. Or to tackle that overgrown and unwanted shrubbery once and for all. Maybe it was one of those light-bulb moments in which you pledged to turn that high-maintenance lawn into a pollinator-friendly wildflower or pictorial meadow, or to transform that patch of wilderness into a properly productive kitchen garden.

Then again, it could be that it was something more elusive – maybe a general feeling of ennui and discontent with your garden’s design or its style of planting. Perhaps you decided to become a better gardener. Or a more adventurous one. Whatever the motivation, here’s a host of useful ways to set the ball rolling so that your garden or allotment becomes a place that gives you much more joy.

Let’s start with those badly overgrown parts, in which case my advice is to pick your battles carefully. So ask yourself (and be realistic) if you’re truly prepared to tackle that large and utterly unkempt border or shrubbery all by yourself. Because there’s no shame (and a lot of sense) in calling in the experts to help with some of the really heavy work. Not only that, an experienced professional landscaper or gardener with ready access to all the right tools and machinery will get through it quickly and efficiently.

Where to find a professional? Ask your local garden club (see garden.ie for a list) or garden centre for recommendations (most good Irish garden centres offer design/planting as an additional service). Or contact the ALCI (Association of Landscape Contractors of Ireland, alci.ie) or the GLDA (Garden & Landscape Designers Association, glda.ie) to find a member in your area. Most horticultural colleges are also happy to put members of the public in contact with knowledgeable, experienced students looking for weekend or evening work to help them pay their way.


Ireland is home to a host of good garden centres as well as specialist nurseries, some of which offer an online mail-order service

The most important thing to learn from any mistake is, of course, how not to repeat it, so make sure to ask these same professionals for their expert opinion. For example, is that overgrown border or shrubbery perhaps in the wrong spot (too dry, too wet, too shady, too close to mature trees or established hedges)? Is the soil in dire need of nourishment? Did the bed become weed-infested and overgrown because the soil was inadequately prepared? Or because the plants were entirely unsuitable? Or was it simply because you had unrealistic expectations of what would be required to maintain it? If that’s the case, then are there clever ways that you can make it lower-maintenance?

Redesign and revamp

Perhaps you’re quite content to call in the professionals to help with the heavy preparatory work, but want to redesign and revamp the planting by yourself.

In this case, my suggestion is to kick off 2018 with some green-fingered inspiration. Examples include this year's upcoming GLDA seminar, "The Designed Garden: An Unfinished Canvas", which takes place in Dublin on February 17th. Guest speakers include Chelsea gold-winning designer James Basson, US landscape architect Douglas Hoerr, Swedish plantsman Peter Korn and the brilliant Wicklow gardener June Blake (tickets €50-€100, glda.ie).

Alternatively, if you dream of creating the perfect, sustainably-managed kitchen garden or allotment, then get yourself a ticket to this year's Gardening Weekend at the gorgeous Renvyle House in Co Galway (February 16th-18th) where you'll hear from a quartet of greatly respected organic kitchen gardeners, including author Joy Larkcom, author and owner of Green Vegetable Seeds Klaus Laitenberger, Anja Gohlke, head gardener of Kylemore Abbey, and Kitty Scully, head gardener of Cork techie company Vox Pro's new 3.5 acre kitchen garden (€195, renvyle.com).

This still leaves you plenty of time to get on with that all-important  revamping/replanting work. Indeed, late February/March is an excellent time of the year to plant most kinds of trees, shrubs, fruit bushes, perennials, roses and climbers including bare-root and root-ball specimens. Where to find the best plants? Ireland is home to a host of good garden centres as well as specialist nurseries, some of which offer an online mail-order service.

For more details, see gardencentreguide.ie and the website of the Irish Specialist Nurseries Association, the first of whose countrywide series of plant fairs takes place on March 10th in St Anne's Park, Raheny, Dublin.

Spring is, of course, also the time to propagate many different kinds of plants from seed (explained in last week's column), a great and inexpensive way to fill all of those newly liberated growing spaces. But if propagating plants in this way is something that fills you with trepidation, then consider booking a place on the upcoming Sowing Seeds workshop (February 17th) at the Dublin-based Dalkey Garden School (€60, dalkeygardenschool.com). The Dalkey Garden School is also running a one-day workshop, Plant Driven Garden Design on February 24th,which will be given by the Bloom gold medal-winning garden designer Patricia Tyrrell, yet another enjoyable and inspiring way to brush away the cobwebs of 2017.

This week in the garden

This is a good time to prune David Austin English shrub roses and other repeat flowering shrub roses while the plants are still in a state of winter dormancy.

If your plants are young, then only a light pruning is required, using a sharp secateurs to gently shorten flowering shoots as well as to remove any dead, damaged or diseased stems and any remaining foliage (common rose diseases can overwinter as spores on the old leaves to re-infect new foliage in spring, so burn or bin any old leaves you’ve collected).

If your shrub roses are mature (three years-old or more), cut them back harder (generally by a third to a half) with the aim of creating a well-shaped, rounded bush. For more details, see davidaustinroses.com.

Snowdrops are one of the joys of the winter garden with a flowering season that starts as early as December and continues well into spring, depending on the particular variety.  If you’re thinking of planting them in your garden, try to give them a spot where they’ll enjoy cool, moist conditions in early spring followed by dry summer shade (this is the reason why they often do so well planted under the canopy of deciduous shrubs and trees).

Recommended Irish specialist suppliers include Altamont Plant Sales in Co Carlow, whose owner Robert Miller is also one of the organisers of the annual Snowdrop Gala next month (details below).

Pigeons are very active in the kitchen garden or allotment at this time of year where they can cause a lot of damage to the leaves of overwintering brassica crops such as Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers and cabbages. Prevent them from doing so by swathing the plants in a layer or two of fine garden netting suspended with bamboo canes and clothes pegs.

Dates For Your Diary

Following his lecture "Revitalising Vita" on Tuesday, January 23rd (8pm) at Foxrock Pastoral Centre, 18 Kill Lane, Dublin 18, for Foxrock & District Gardening Club, Troy Scott-Smith, head gardener of Sissinghurst Castle garden, Kent, will give the same lecture on behalf of Cork Alpine/Hardy Plants Society at the Lavanagh Centre, Ballintemple on January 25th (8pm);

February 3rd, (9.30am-5pm), Ballykealey Manor Lodge, Ballon, Co Carlow, Snowdrop Gala & Other Spring Treasures, with talks by nurseryman Graham Gough and alpine plant specialist Jim Almond plus a tour of Altamont Gardens as well as a spring bulb/spring flowering plants sale with stands by specialist nurseries/suppliers including Avon Bulbs, Coosheen Plants, Marchants Hardy Plants, Jim Almond and Assumpta Broomfield. Tickets are €70 including lunch and refreshments, contact sales@altamontplans.com or Hester Forde at 086-8654972.

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon is an Irish Times contributor specialising in gardening