Sláinte: Forty Shades of Green
Back in the nineties a friend’s gorgeous garden made me forty envious shades of green. Then in 2002, I moved into a little 1950s bungalow with a big backyard that was choked with weeds, discarded bed and bicycle frames, and a dilapidated shed housing a black widow spider colony. Full of purpose and heavily gloved, I dove into the task of creating my first garden.
For four months I dug out every weed, rolled in tree stumps to make borders, built veggie beds with railroad ties, and paved a dining nook with chunks of a neighbor’s torn up driveway. Next I made river pebble paths outlined with mini boulders, dug an itsy bitsy pond, and had a dump truck’s load of mushroom compost delivered. With the “bones” of my garden in place, I was ready to plant.
A pal who moved to the mountains donated some plants that wouldn’t survive her new climate: a three-foot lemon tree, a two-foot tall fig tree, a scrawny lemon verbena shrub, and a puny purple flowered potato vine. I added 12 heirloom roses, gobs of vegetables and herbs, and one-gallon jasmine, lavender, California mallow, butterfly bush, hydrangeas and honeysuckle.
Fast forward to 2014. The fig is 15 feet tall and produces over a thousand fruit annually, the lemon is eight feet high and flavors my salads all winter, the potato ‘vine’ became a tree, ditto the lemon verbena and mallow, the butterfly bush towers over the house, the jasmine threatens to consume the bedroom wall, and the lavender is almost as big as a VW Beetle. Having learned in Gardening Year One that veggie plants produce way more than I can consume, each season fewer go in the ground.
NOTE: The tomatoes and herbs in these recipes will be fresh picked from my garden. They can also usually be found at summer Farmer’s Markets.
(personal recipe from my Italian grandmother)
8-12 sun-ripened heirloom tomatoes
bunch of basil
1⁄3 cup Extra Virgin olive oil
1⁄2 to 1 lb angel hair pasta (Cappellini)
finely grated Romano cheese
Chop the tomatoes into small pieces. Mince the basil. Combine with olive oil and a little salt. Set aside for half an hour and allow the tomato nectar to emerge.
Fill a stockpot with water and bring to a boil. Add angel hair pasta and cook for 8-10 minutes until al dente. Drain pasta and combine with tomato-basil mixture. Serve with Romano cheese on the side for flavoring to each diner’s preference. Serves 4-6.
Arugula Garden Salad (personal recipe)
1 salad bowl full of Arugula leaves and flowers
1⁄2 cup chopped toasted walnuts
1⁄2 cup crumbled Feta cheese
1 pear, peeled and cored
Combine arugula, arugula flowers, nasturtium flowers, walnuts and Feta cheese. Cut pear into small pieces and add to salad bowl. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with Balsamic vinegar. Toss. Serves 4-6.
Rose Geranium Pound Cake
NOTE: This cake will have a delicate scent and slight flavor of roses.
1⁄2 cup butter, softened
3⁄4 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tablespoons brandy
grated rind of 1 lemon
2 cups flour
3⁄4 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
3⁄4 teaspoon mace
1⁄4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup yogurt
Preheat oven to 325F. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, beating well after each addition. Stir in vanilla extract, brandy and lemon rind.
Sift flour, baking soda, salt, mace and nutmeg into a small bowl. Add to creamed mixture alternately with yogurt, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Place Rose Geranium leaves face down in a decorative array on the bottom of a well-oiled loaf or tube pan. Pour in cake batter and smooth surface. Bake at 325 degrees for 40-50 minutes until a tester can be inserted and withdrawn dry. Cool in pan on rack for 10 minutes. Invert pan on a serving plate, remove so leaves are showing on top of cake. Let cake cool to room temperature. Best served the following day. Makes 8-10 servings.
Early on I discovered something my gardening friend hadn’t mentioned. Unlike projects that create completed items, gardens are never finished. There’s always something to do and, if not kept up with, will quickly deteriorate into a shambles. Alas, that’s what happened last year.
So all through Spring I sweated, swore and crawled around on my hands and knees digging, pulling, planning and planting what I hope will grow to be my most glorious garden yet. And one afternoon while washing dishes I had an epiphany. Everything I know about garden design I learned in Ireland!
On visits to many landed manors, farmhouses, cottages and nationally recognized botanical treasures, I discovered a wealth of Irish horticultural Edens. There were kitchen gardens, herb gardens, walled gardens, cutting gardens, rose gardens, moon gardens, scented gardens, woodland gardens and garden follies galore.
Kitchen gardens are just that, neatly tended plots where veggies destined for the soup pot or dinner plate grow in happy harmony. Herb gardens often resembled in-ground stained glass windows with each section outlined in gravel and filled with different culinary plants and edible flowers.
Walled gardens are kitchen gardens on a grand scale. Usually found on manor properties, many were built during the Famine years when landed gentry had sturdy walls built around their gardens by laborers who could not find work. The stone drywalls are themselves works of art and provide the extra bonus of holding the sun’s heat and keeping the plants warm. The example at Temple House in County Sligo occupies more than an acre and includes an aged apple orchard and rhubarb “pie plants” that are bigger than Victorian bathtubs.
Homes with even the smallest patches of dirt have cutting gardens, for the Irish love nothing more than bringing bouquets indoors to grace heirloom vases. Roses, being the Virgin Mary’s sacred flower, are a popular planting. Large properties will often have formal rose gardens containing dozens of heritage beauties, enclosed with manicured privet hedges and laid out with flagstone paths, benches for relaxing among the blossoms’ heady perfume, and birdbaths for enticing feathered friends to stop by for a dip or a drink.
One particular oasis, Kilfane Glen and Waterfall in Thomastown, County Kilkenny, completely enthralled me. Owned by Nicholas Mosse, Ireland’s most famous potter, and his botanical artist wife Susan, the 15-acre property had been neglected for more than 200 years and was a tangled mass of overgrowth when they purchased it. A chance discovery of a 1795 estate map and sketches dated 1805 led the couple on a restoration adventure that resulted in the property becoming listed as an Irish Heritage Garden.
Developed during the 1790s by Sir John and Lady Powers, in collaboration with John’s twin brother Sir Richard Powers, the grounds of Kilfane House reflected the influence of Rousseau and the Romantic Movement. Untamed woods, ravines and valleys, waterfalls and cascades, purpose built caves and grottoes combined to produce a rugged wild landscape, rather than the formal elegance that was previously popular.
The property’s most unique feature is a ravine with a tumbling stream. Flanked by sheer rock faces and outcrops up to 50 feet high, it winds through the narrow valley floor and forms picturesque cascades when coursing over slanting drops strewn with boulders. To create the waterfall, the designers diverted part of the stream’s flow into a mile-long canal that conducts the water over a 30-foot cliff. A murmuring brook runs from the pool at the base of the falls and rejoins the nearby main stream, which at that point flows through a grassy lawn at the center of the glen.
Nature lovers who followed paths through the beech, sweet chestnut, oak, larch and Scots pine woodlands were rewarded by encounters with enchanting caprices and follies: rustic seats amid swaths of wildflowers, bridges across the meandering stream, a ‘hermit’s grotto’ carved into the cliff just yards from the base of the waterfall, and the prime destination: a charming thatched “cottage orne.” Set in open grassland with mullioned windows and doors that open wide for an unobstructed view of the waterfall, it was fitted out with comfy furnishings for resting up before hiking back to the manor.
While the majority of Kilfane Glen’s enhanced natural beauty was intended for daytime walking, guests could also take romantic strolls at night through the ‘moon’ garden where paths lined with plants having silvery leaves and white flowers reflected the moonlight.
Even though my garden is a postage stamp in comparison to vast Kilfane Glen, I realize now that it contains wee replicas of classic Irish romantic horticultural design and I fancy that one of my ancestors who tended a lush manor garden left its imprint on my DNA! Sláinte!