The Good Life

 A year in the life of a small holder in Ireland ...


I love the New Year there’s something wonderful about being able to start afresh again and planning the year ahead. We have invested in another greenhouse. It will be built on the site of the old barn. I feel sad to lose the barn. We looked at different options of patching it up, re-roofing etc, but the old frame made of tree trunks was turning to dust through dry rot at the base. Our neighbors kindly helped us demolish it and we hope to reuse what we can - the decent metal sheets to make pig arcs; the wood we will chop and store for the fires; the rocks from the foundations will be used to line the drive; and we need to find something to do with the old tree trunks, I don’t want to burn them, it doesn’t seem respectful somehow, as they held up the barn for so long – perhaps we will stack them in the orchard to provide a home for wildlife. Behind the barn we found traces of our predecessors  lives – bits of old farm implements; a plough and at a very opportune moment an anvil to split rocks; fishing nets and lobster pots with broken wicker work. Knocking down the old barn has opened up a stunning view of the distant purple mountains and brought a feeling of light and space to the side of our cottage. Usually when we make changes we are putting things back to how they were long ago, in this case we are starting a new making our mark on the landscape. New Year, new challenges and hope for the future.


Brrr! Its been cold, but we shouldn't complain - our little peninsula in West Cork missed out on the worst of the snow, thanks to the Gulf Stream. Just one beautiful snow laden morning greeted us, by lunchtime it had melted away, leaving just the snowy tops of the Caha mountains in the distance . We might have avoided the snow, but Jack Frost was definitely down our way, making the zig-zag road down to the lough almost in-passable.  Still during the blizzards in the rest of Ireland we experienced several fresh, clear days of blue skies and warm sunshine - a hint of the Spring to come. So it was on with the wellies and out in the mud to plant 30 Ash trees around our boundary. We are trying to phase out the use of coal and peat and eventually want to be self-sufficient in wood. Having trimmed the Ash trees on our boundary we found that they burnt much hotter than pine and glowed like peat. It also does not need to be seasoned like most woods and can be burnt green – so Ash is definitely the solution. Just one problem – it has to be chopped up.


I’m looking for inspiration in the vegetable garden. Last year I dug up the grass paths between the beds, but it was hard to keep them neat in the summer, so we have decided on raised beds. The first seeds of the year have been sown and the important preparation work has been started. All four compost heaps have been emptied and moved to a new area ‘The Yard’, where we now store wood, compost and the manure heaps. The gravel drive has been weeded and topped up and two new stone wall beds built.

In search of inspiration I trawled through gardens on the internet and decided on a day trip to Ballymalloe, just beyond Cork. The trip was a great success, we were truly impressed by their herb and veg gardens, the geometric designs in box hedging formed an intricate tapestry, providing structure and pattern. Darina Allen was busy teaching in her cookery school, but took time to chat about her chickens - Pekins, which produced tiny blue eggs.


At last the garden is springing into life. The grass has had its first cut and the fuchsia hedge, which runs around our boundary, is no longer brown twigs, but flushed with vibrant green growth. It seemed to happen overnight. We’ve had lovely weather in fact, it’s been so dry that the pond as dried up, much to the ducks distain. Feathers (the female duck), has been laying an egg every day. They are about the size of chicken’s eggs, but blue and much heavier, with a richer yolk – great for cakes. We tried to hatch some in the Stanley, but it wasn’t successful. Now we are trying plan B, we’ve put them under Clive our old black cat who spends about 22 hours a day in his basket. He’s a real softy and wouldn’t hurt a fly. We’ll test them next week with a torch to see if any are developing. It’s a shame Feathers won’t sit on her eggs, but her and the three drakes are always out and about in the garden.   


The swallows arrived as expected on 26th April, chattering excitedly with their characteristic call.  The fuchsia hedges are alive with the sound of the birds and the blossom on the apple trees is attracting bumblebees. The hawthorn bushes dotted about the fuchsia are in bloom too and there is ozone freshness in the air that comes from living on a peninsula, surrounded by sea on three sides. The green finch is our newest arrival at the bird feeders, which are now wired to the trees, to prevent the hooded crows from pulling them down. Originally they were tied on with string, but I was astonished to find the Crows could undo knots!   We have finally planted the stone circle at the entrance to the drive. We settled on blueberry bushes and wild strawberries - as plants are so expensive I like to plant useful ones. Blueberries are great because they have pretty white bell like flowers and then the delicious berries to follow. Wild strawberries are tiny but full of flavour. In the centre of the bed we planted a wild cherry tree. We try to plant a number of trees each year.  The trees include wild cherry, hawthorn, crab apple and silver birch, which were chosen for their beauty and the range of birds and insects they support. 


 The vet has been and we passed! The pigs have arrived. We got them from a neighbour who breeds rare breed Saddleback pigs and he happened to mention that he had two pigs that had never grown – the runts of the litter. They are 7 months old, but only look like 10 week old weaners. Daisy is black and white and looks like a saddleback, and Blackberry is all black with pink feet. With names like that you’ve probably guessed we’re hardly going to be eating them. It’s just their manure that we’ll be making use of. They’re real characters. Daisy is quite shy, where as Blackberry is a complete extrovert unashamedly rolling over to have her belly rubbed. Blackberry has the biggest appetite and now there is quite a difference in their sizes. They are really quite clean animals and don’t soil their bedding and they seem to enjoy the shower I give them in the mornings, when filling their water. However, their beautiful little shady copse originally fully of long grass and overgrown veg, has within the month been reduced to something not unlike a peat bog. They’re even digging trenches! I hadn’t realised what fantastic rotavators they were. In the autumn, I’ll move their pen to the other end of the orchard and they can clean the ground of brambles for me.   


July brought our first proper harvest of the year, although it was very nearly a disaster – the sudden warm weather with rain at night were perfect conditions for potato blight. The earlies were due to be harvested, so that didn’t cause a problem and the potatoes – Charlotte, were excellent but I had to cut down the vegetation from the maincrop potatoes well before they were ready. The new rhubarb planted this spring also had a burst of growth and provided us with several rhubarb crumbles. I’ve tried not to take too many stalks, as the plants are still young. The fruit bushes have treated us to fruit throughout most of June and July. The gooseberries were the most successful as the birds were more reluctant to take these because of their prickly spines, whereas the raspberries and blackcurrants were stripped by the bullfinches and the tree sparrows. Best of all the berries were the wild strawberries and the more we picked the more grew. These combined with the gooseberries made great fruity compote.  The young swallows have been lined up along the washing line this week. Every now and again they all took off, often leaving one poor nervous swallow swinging on the line waiting for his siblings to return. They are quick learners soon they will be swooping in the water meadow like miniature jet planes. It is amazing to think that soon they will be flying all the way to Africa.     


This summer when the work was done we headed off to the beach. We are creatures of habit and our favourite evening haunt was Rosscarbery.  It was the allure of fish and chips, sand and all that won us over. Then to burn off the excess, races and kite flying along the white sands. As the evening draws in and the day trippers pack their bags and head home there is a lull when we virtually have the beach to ourselves. Then others arrive almost like shift workers – fishermen setting up their rods; horses being put through their paces; and lone joggers. The sound of the crashing waves and breathing the sea air is so therapeutic. I’m fortunate to have lived near the sea all my life and could not imagine being far from it. It brings a sense of peace and calm, of living in the now, but like all good things it comes to an end and it is time to head home, well almost ice-cream at Leap is calling us, just one more treat. 


As we enter September suddenly there is a chill in the air, reminding us that soon the long summer days will be over and we will be constrained by the shortened hours of daylight. The swallows are gathering and there are signs the winter will be a hard one once again. The hawthorn hedges are thick with berries; the fox returns building his winter larder; and the swallows are swarming. Like the animals I too feel the need to prepare for the winter, particularly as we were caught out the last two years having previously grown accustomed to the mild winters of West Cork. Now at the end of the month, I feel confident knowing the winter logs are piled high; the apples have been gathered and made into copious amounts of pickle and stewed apple; and the freezer is groaning with frozen berries from the summer and roasted vine tomatoes. These delights conceal the laborious hours of peeling and cooking, but it will all be worthwhile. Nothing has been wasted not even the purple grapes full of pips. These have been stewed gently and reduced until they formed a thick sweet syrup to be served with roast duck this Christmas. 


Nature’s masterpiece through my window delights me every season. In autumn there is a simplicity about it, with the trees stripped bare by the storms, standing erect, silhouetted against the golden autumn sky. Sometimes I wish I could paint, but to do justice to the scene would be a challenge indeed.

 An Autumn Sunset

The wild black promontories of the coast extend
Their savage silhouettes;
The sun in universal carnage sets,
And, halting higher,
The motionless storm-clouds mass their sullen threats,
Like an advancing mob in sword-points penned,
That, balked, yet stands at bay…

Edith Wharton (1862 – 1937)


I try to plant fifty trees a year. This year I’ve really beat my target. On an impulse I bought 100 willow rods to make a living fence. It sounds extravagant, but bare root willow at 60 cents a rod makes a cheap alternative to a wooden fence or stone wall. Planting them on the thin rocky soil was a challenge but I was rewarded when I reached the top of the outcrop by deep, soft soil. Instant gratification when a spade sinks easily into the soil. I’ll be rewarded in the spring too, by catkins and the bright green leaves unfurling. In summer the willow will be lush with delicate leaves and in the winter the bare purple stems will give structure to the garden.  Three years ago I planted some yellow willows at the entrance to the drive. They are in the wrong place, shading the raspberry patch, so a couple of times a year I cut them back quite hard. In the autumn I use the bright yellow stems to make wreathes for Christmas. My favourite shape to make is a heart, an oval works well particularly covered in herbs or a Christmas star. I’ve finally got round to decorating my own front door. This year its winter roses and gypsophilia in amongst the holly and golden sprayed seed heads. Surprisingly the roses woven into the wreath seem to be surviving and in the mornings with the dew on them they look quite beautiful.  


Christmas Eve is my favourite day over the Christmas hols. The family have just arrived home. The fridge is packed with all the festive fare. There are mince pies to make, the Christmas cake to decorate and vegetables to dig up from the garden – parsnips, celeriac and brussel sprouts this year. The duck is defrosting on the side; salmon poaching on the stove for the fish terrine tomorrow; and Michael Buble is singing ‘All I want for Christmas is you’. Then out in to the storm for the last minute Christmas dash around the neighbours with cards.  I think I’ve made it, everything done, just in time, but oh dear the fairy lights have gone out and we forgot to buy milk. Looks like it’s going to be Bailey’s in the coffee this Christmas!