Stony gardening by the Burren

Stony gardening

While Casa Ceoil is not in the heart of the Burren or officially in the national park, we are by the edges and get to experience it up close at times. Let me tell you, it is not the best experience in my garden.

The Burren is a unique landscape in the west of Ireland, here you will see flat arid-looking limestone areas, mixed up with patches of green fields, turloughs and lakes. The name says it all, as it means “the rocky place”. The limestone area is referred to as a pavement, and when you see it you are not surprised as it is so flat, ground down by the moving pre-historic ice masses. The limestone is broken and in the crevices, there is a unique flora of Mediterranean, Alpine and Arctic flowers and plants growing.

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The old part of the house has an integrated boulder into the corner. 

That is all very nice, but what does that have to do with my garden? Well, I never knew, until I lived here that is, that stones literally grow out of the ground in the Burren. Yes, in this part of Ireland stones grow in your garden as if you planted them like spuds (Irish slang for potatoes).

It seems like a joke or an exaggeration, but once you’ve gardened a few years you stop doubting that you forgot to dig out certain rocks the previous year. The number of stones and large rocks that are dug out of my garden each year is astounding. It doesn’t matter how thorough I am, my spade always says “clink” when I dig.

This year we’ve had volunteers on working holidays with us; and they sweated over the stones in the beds of my polytunnel. I don’t think they truly could believe that we each year dig out the same amount of stones they struggled with.

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This bed was dug, thoroughly, a month or so ago.

This was only a few months ago, and only the other day I dug out a small pile of large stones and a boulder (see the image on the left).

This growth of stones became apparent to me a few years ago. Kevin had decided to plant spuds and scraped out the grass on an area of one of the fields. He never got the chance to set the spuds and the piece of bare ground was left alone.

The year after I was astounded; that bare piece of earth was covered with stones in varied sizes. There were no stones on the grass around it, but on that bare patch it looked as we had planted stones and they had reproduced like crazy. Why stones don’t push up through the grass I will never know, but it was a lesson in geology…the earth is in constant movement.

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A part of this year’s crop of Burren stones and boulders.

We all think of stones and rocks as static, but they are actually in constant movement, and nowhere more than here, on the edge of one of the rockiest places on earth. So that is what I have to look forward to in my gardening, forever, a constant production of stones. It is not strange that the stones are pushed up through the softest area of little resistance, the soft earth of my raised beds.

It still surprises and amazes me, every year, and I have to ask myself…could I really have missed that boulder last year when digging my beds? There is no way that rock appeared from nowhere. But I should know by now, the Burren is bountiful when it comes to stone; at least we do have beautiful walls.

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Sometimes you dig out the most interesting boulders.

Too many seedlings

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I have a few gardening weaknesses. Well many, but a few I will admit to.  Like many gardeners, I tend to plant too many seeds and then I have trouble killing off seedlings that seem perfectly healthy. Instead I end up with too many plants which I hopefully can give away, but sometimes have to just forget about and let them die a quiet death. Thankfully there is always someone that wants a few, and I am more than happy to give away my babies.

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Way too many celery seedlings. The seed were supposed to be too old!

This year again, I have plenty of extras, but in my defence some of the seed were old and I didn’t know or expect that they would actually come out at all. I just had to plant them all, thinking that only a few would sprout, but they seem to have been hardier than expected and I now have more broccoli and celery seedlings than ever.

The plan that I made up, which you can see in my Seed Frenzy post, is very helpful and does curb my ambitions, although I feel I should have space or make space for more plants. I am getting better at utilising spaces between plants for quick veg, such as radishes, salads and coriander.

This year I have also decided to plant more flowers, both as useful companions to deter bugs, as edible plants, but also for ground cover and for the pretty effect. I always plant marigolds around my tomatoes, but while they are edible I have never really used them in my cooking or salads, their strong fragrance has always put me off. I have bulked up on nasturtiums, that also are edible, as they were hard to find last year. They are hardy, pretty and a terrific addition to any salad.

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Kale, cabbage, cauliflower…how many can I plant? Let the Games Begin!

Other useful flowers I will be planting are Calendula, type of marigold really but leggier and more elegant. Last year I did a herbal workshop with local herbalist Vivienne Cambell. She showed us how to do a great hand cream with dried Calendula flower heads, it was a very good gardening cream. When my kids were small I always used the Weleda calendula oil at diaper changes, I found it excellent for their skin. In case you are interested, Vivienne has great webinars and e-courses on herbal medicine on her site, The Herbal Hub.

The Cosmos and Cornflowers, favourites of mine, will go outdoors. My children have also planted an array of old flower seeds that are nameless, so whatever comes will be a surprise.

I have added another edible to my list, more than one to be honest but lets not dwell on that (seed frenzy you see!); so I am currently looking for Stevia seeds.

You might have seen the Stevia syrup in shops, which is a good replacement for sugar as it is healthier and you use much smaller quantities. It still is sweet, it still has calories, but less. Supposedly you can sweeten your drinks with Stevia leaves and I thought it would be a good thing to try out as I find the syrup a good replacement for sugar. Depending on how much you need, I might give a try to making some kind of syrup.

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My favourite squash. Seeds from Seedaholic.com

After searching a bit, I have found seeds for one of my favourite vegetables, the Rolet squash. This is a fabulous vegetable that look like a black cue ball; you boil it, cut it in half, eat it with a bit of butter, it tastes strongly of sweetcorn and just heavenly. You can get the seeds at the Seedaholic.com site. Just be careful if you are an avid gardener, as their selection will make you drool. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

 

The one thing I have really succeeded with, in regards of my original planting plan, are my cucumbers. I have six plants, no more and no less, exactly as planned. I might be drowning in cabbage, kale, cauliflower and celery, but I am done with the cucumbers.

Unless…unless I come across some interesting new seeds. Small round lemon cucumbers sounded awful interesting I have to say. Wonder what they taste like?

 

Frenemies on the farm

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My relationship with our bullocks is less than cordial. Kevin grew up with cattle and there was never any doubt in him that he had to own some on the farm. Having a city upbringing, I am always open to any new farm activities but I must say that bullocks have broken my heart.

For our girl’s first communion two years ago, they received 5 young calves from their proud dad. To their father’s horror they named them all and wanted assurances that while they would be sold for a profit, they would not be eaten. We explained that we are not a hobby farm and what we raise and work with will at some point end up on a plate, the key is to give them a good life. We made a vague promise that we probably would not be the ones to eat them.

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Sparrow  as a calf, with his eye patch.

This was our girl’s and my first close experience with calves, and to my distaste I had never
realised how slobbery, poopy and clueless they are. There they are, Angus bullocks that remind me of rambling hippopotamuses – Blackie, Brownie, Calypso, Hercules and Sparrow (after John Sparrow, the pirate. See his eye patch?).

I bucket fed them milk, making sure everyone got his share, treated their ringworm and made sure they had plenty to eat, always putting up with their drool, poop, piss and general rough behaviour. Our relationship started souring when they once too many times broke into the shed and left a mess getting at the feed, but what truly broke our tenuous bond was when they raided my polytunnel.

Now, farm animals breaking into gardens is just part of country life; it may break your heart and make you want to chew stones in frustration, but it is part the package. What I can’t forgive our bullocks for, is the fact that they chewed their way straight through the middle of the plastic of the polytunnel.

“I want those walking steaks sold! I’ll kill them myself if I see them in my tunnel again!” I roared at my husband, who promised he’d replace the plastic and pointed out it was probably time for it anyway.

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“Are you looking at me? What if I’m eating the grass of you lawn?”, says Hercules with a blank stare.

Now, I did get lovely new plastic out of it, but what astounded me and truly makes me doubt the intelligence of these animals was the last time they broke out around the tunnel. Ignoring all the new fresh grass around the tunnel and the beautiful broccoli growing inside, the idiot bullocks started nibbling on the corners of the polytunnel plastic.

“What’s wrong with these animals?”, I have asked my husband and any cattle farmer I have met, the only answer I ever got was just a shrugging of shoulders  and no show of surprise. It seems you can expect anything from cattle.

I am finally getting my wish; the bullocks will be sold soon. The downside of the sale is that three cows in calf have been bought to replace them. My hope is that the females of the species are smarter than the males, because the intelligence of bullocks leave much to be desired.

The new calves will be born in a few weeks and they just might melt my hardened heart. I’m also hoping to give milking a go, even though Kevin has made it very clear that milking will not be in his repertoire, at all, but if I want to learn I can “knock myself out”.

You might consider taking a break in our holiday home, Casa Ceoil, and experience a slice of country life in the West. Spring is so lovely to see, with new calves and lambs enjoying the green fields and paddocks around the house. I will proudly show you the lambs, but probably point dismissively towards the calves.