Herb growing Ireland – How to grow herbs – Herb growing workshop – Gretas Herbs Annascaul, Dingle

kerrys Eye Newspaper November 4, 2016

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West Kerry Magazine Jan 2016 April 3, 2016

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  • spring quote
    As the winds And floods of 2015 pass behind us we must look forward to Spring 2016! The days are lengthening so it is time to raise our spiritsand reach toward nature as it slowly resurrectsfrom the dark, sodden earth.
    Out come the old biscuit tins full of last year’s half-emptied seed packets. I have also
    managed to salvage a few home-gathered varieties such as milk thistle and perilla. These days I buy online, the seed sites are extremely informative and extremely tempting! I tend to go over my seed orders several times as I get carried away. I have to curb my enthusiasm or ‘should I say avarice’ for wanting everything that catches my eye – like a child in a sweet shop!
    I have developed a fondness for kale and Swiss chard as unlike cabbage they are troublefree: no caterpillar attacks and no club root or other nasty afflictions. I have a new kale variety called ‘Thousand Head’ on my list this year which sounds promising! Oriental varieties also excite my palate. I can’t wait to try a few new ones such as  choy sum‘Purple Stem’ which can be used young in salads or later cooked like spinach. I will be keeping an eye out for stock plants of new herb varieties but these are harder to come by.Recent additions include golden cotton lavender and lime mint.
    I start sowing the hardy reliable varieties such as lettuce, rocket, parsley and mizuna in early February as soon as temperatures hit 10ºC. Details of the glasshouse and newspaper technique I use (under advice & tips) can be followed on my website
    www.gretasherbs.com. By the time March has arrived, my daily ritual of sowing and
    potting up increases with determined dedication. There is a sacredness in it all: as the
    daylight extends so does my work load from morning until night.
    Last summer was a washout yet nature still provided certain rewards – the greens grew abundantly! I will not mention the failures. Despite the many trials of gardening in a dismal, coastal climate, I can never let go of the hope for a hot, dry summer which gives red shine to tomatoes on the vine, pink\ochre skies in the evening time and as the sun goes down the gathering of tools amidst the scent of sage and lavender. Good memories like those ignite my optimism! I await the first sticky bud burst from the horse chestnut tree! I can hear the rhythm of gardening in my heart – it is time to get growing.
    How boring life would be if it was all too predictable!

Giardini La Mortella February 3, 2016

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I recently visited the renowned Italian garden ‘La Mortella’ meaning place of the myrtles on the Isle of Ischia in the spectacular Bay of Naples! In 1949 this exquisite coastal residence became the home place of the famous British classical composer William Walton and his Argentian wife Susana. She was a passionate and gifted gardener who with the aid of the well-known designer Russell Page created this incredible inspirational space. I was so captivated by its beauty it brought tears to my eyes! This wonderful garden reveals a heady mix of plants, music and art; all things I love!


It encompasses practically every garden feature imaginable and is home to a fantastic collection of plants – everything from orchids to Japanese maples. There are a series of amazing ponds and fountains both inside and outside. These display cheerful water lilies; one being the largest tropical variety, Victoria amazonica whose giant lily pads supposedly can float a baby. Strangely this pink lily only flowers by night. The garden is constructed on many different levels; the rambling pathways and steps are planted with many striking foliage varieties – too numerous to mention. The meandering style of the garden leads one through a variety of well-crafted structures from arches to bridges to pergolas!


My favourite plant had to be Passiflora ‘Incense’. This evergreen climber has large exotic lavender-purple flowers whose intricate design just took my breath away, another love affair began and I just have to get one! Its cousin P. caerulea has blue and white flowers and grows happily here in Kerry once provided with a south-facing wall.


A Greek theatre nestles neatly amongst this green paradise; a panoramic sea view forms a living backdrop. Symphony concerts are staged there during the summer and I sense the spirit of William Walton wafts through the pine trees on those occasions! There is also an indoor recital hall and museum where we met the sound technician as he was tuning up the grand piano for that evening’s concert. With dedicated reverence he led us to the sanctity of a secret room to show us the original piano used by the composer; it is not on public display, we stood in silence touched by its humility, it was by no means a grand piano!


The final highlight for me was ‘The Temple of the Sun’ which is an awesome, artistic tribute to this great composer. Gold bas-relief adorns the white walls with angels and phrases from William’s music. Rays of sunlight danced through the circular, ceiling windows and I felt completely captured in this ethereal world! However a cup of gun powder tea in the garden café brought me quickly back to earth! I could write forever about this most beautiful place. I would recommend anyone to visit – for me it was an elevating experience one which has enriched the archives of my memory!


West Kerry Live Magazine August 2015 September 2, 2015

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Sweet Peas

Sweet Peas

We are nearing the final days of summer and what a disappointment it has been. I will be very surprised if my large bed of sunflowers ever develop any flower heads- what sun will they worship?  My sweet peas that usually enjoy a good shower of rain are equally disillusioned: all flowers need sunshine! It is wise practice to liquid feed sweet peas generously on a weekly basis and keep cutting them – at least I can enjoy their fragrance in my home as my summer dalliance days outside are sadly non-existent.

Pots of both sweet and Greek bush basil are performing surprisingly well in the polytunnel. Careful watering is crucial in these humid conditions; avoid wetting the foliage as rot will quickly set in. When harvesting always pluck the tops as this encourages bushiness. Foliage plants such as willow, holly and our beloved fuchsia are thriving in this rain soaked land however blossoms are getting destroyed on many flowering perennials and bedding.

The new purple pod mangetout pea ‘Shiraz’ is a great success and adds superb colour to salads. Swiss chard and Russian kale are both abundant so I must count as blessings some of the offerings nature produces despite the weather! The only pest infestation I encountered were aphids on my young fennel plants and scented geraniums. I purchased an organic spray to combat these. I am very lucky as I rarely have any pest problems. Herbs are resilient and many contain volatile oils which omit powerful aromas. This often creates a dual effect deterring certain pests such as aphids while attracting other beneficial insects such as hoverflies.

At the end of summer I like to reflect on the growing season which has passed. Nostalgia sets in as I observe the canvas of nature fading to sombre colours. But already I have begun a list of new varieties for next year! I look forward to growing  Santolina ‘lemon Fizz’ and the ‘Ladybird’ poppy variety which I spotted at Bloom – Although I am told it’s been around for years it’s new to me – evidently developed using a species from Russia in the 1870’s. Plants have wonderful stories to tell!

I am taking several trips abroad this winter so who knows what I will discover! I hope to visit the renowned garden ‘La Mortella’ on the Isle of Ischia in the bay of Naples. This garden was created by the English composer, William Walton and his Argentinean wife who believed there was a connection between music and gardening. He loved the isolation and composed there for 35 years. A return visit to the Botanic Gardens in Malaga is also on my itinerary. I enjoyed a guided tour there almost ten years ago when they were doing major rejuvenation and landscape work. It has one of the best palm collections in the world. Sometimes I dream of another place another time when I was one of those eccentric plant hunters of the last century! But for me today if I come back with a handful of collected seed from some exotic or unusual plants then my adventure will have been in vain. A gardener’s passion is all about finding another plant with which to enjoy the next love affair!’


West Kerry Live Article June 25th July 6, 2015

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comfrey& phlomis

May was a cold, colourless month. The sunny days of June finally enticed the budding oriental poppies and lupins to display their beauty. I had to cut lots of bamboo stakes in an effort to reinforce their stance against the late gales! My Jerusaleum sage (Phlomis fruiticosa) is incredible and has spread itself flamboyantly on both sides of the bank. Overnight, it burst into a mass of rich yellow flowers and has cheered me up immensely. It contrasts brilliantly with the purple flowers of comfrey – this was a most exciting accidental liaison

The kitchen garden has again been a tedious affair – the alternation between extreme wet and extreme dry is definitely not good for vegetable growing. Cool night temperatures have also interrupted growth: even the lettuce seems to be standing still. I planted my all time favourite early potato ‘Home Guard’ in old compost bags in the polytunnel and kept piling any old compost in on top to encourage extra tuber growth. It has been an easy method which has proved surprisingly productive. I am enjoying a generous harvest of delicious good-sized spuds with no blight problems for once and very little scrubbing required. Of course the traditional butter and salt is a must but I also enjoy them with a blob of natural yogurt enhanced to perfection with freshly chopped Moroccan mint or spearmint. Coriander has almost come to an end – it always thrives better in the earlier part of the season. Any sowings that I make now seem to quickly run to seed. I will collect and sow some of this ripened seed in August with the hope that it may provide a late autumn or early spring harvest. My Greek oregano is so lush I end up using it in everything and anything: since my delicious dill died it has become my substitute flavour in egg dishes!
I have green and bronze fennel growing everywhere: it makes a superb ornamental foliage plant. Unfortunately I am not too fond of the flavour; anything aniseedy reminds me of liquorice and how I deplored it as a child. I found those long black liquorice shoelaces doubly disgusting: I could never understand how anyone would enjoy chewing on that rubbery substance! I do have a plant of liqourice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) in the tunnel: it is related to the pea and bean family but has never flowered. It is the root which provides the candy extract which unfortunately for me has a whole list of health benefits. I however prefer the cocoa bean extract. Give me chocolate any day!


West Kerry Live end May June 1, 2015

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wild garlic

The month of May has been treacherous where gardening is concerned.  Fluctuating temperatures have caused erratic growth and everything from seed sowing to planting out has been gravely affected. I have continued to cover seedlings in the polytunnel with fleece on chilly nights. This is usually a task I discontinue in April but it pays to be cautious especially when temperatures drop below 10ºC. Some of my precious seedlings such as clary sage disappeared overnight; only the stark stems remained – I could not find any slug on the raised bench so I am assuming the menace is some form of leafhopper perhaps a runaway flea beetle!  Covering with fleece is a barrier against these destructive pests. Thankfully attacks are a very occasional occurrence and damage can be minimised if detected on time. Tender vegetables such as cucumber, courgette and tomato have endured a testing time. It is wiser to delay planting these outside until early June when the winds have ceased and the temperature has stabilised- there will be a lot of catching up to do!

Young salad crops such as radish, beetroot and scallions should be thinned out to allow the crop to develop; these pickings can be tossed into salad to add another tasty dimension. Many of the oriental salad herbs like mizuna and mustard greens go to seed in dry, sunny weather. They prefer cooler temperatures so always plant them in a shady spot in rich, moist soil. Generous watering and feeding combined with regular cutting is important to prolong the yield!

Several years ago I left garlic cloves I had planted in the ground. They failed to develop into full size bulbs: no doubt due to another bad summer. Out of sheer annoyance I never dug them up: I just left them there expecting they would rot! Surprisingly, some survived to form two thick clumps which now provide me with ‘garlic scallions’ throughout most of the year. I shall enjoy the aroma of fresh garlic in my kitchen forever more! This story is a typical example of wild gardening! Sometimes a little neglect – or rather allowing nature to have its own way – can often produce unexpectedly good results. Many herbs such as oregano, salad burnet and fennel will re-seed: usually the spot they put down roots will suit them perfectly and they will thrive more so than the ones we plant meticulously in what we assume is the ideal location!  My self-seeded Greek oregano is just splendid growing haphazardly among the pebbles it is so abundant I think it no longer dreams of Greece and I love handing out bunches of it to all my visiting friends!

Finally this year I managed to acquire a plant of wild garlic aka ramsons (Allium ursinum). On researching the meaning of the word  ramsons. I came across ‘pungent old world weedy plant’. It sure is a mouthful but I think it is an accurate and somewhat intriguing description.  I have planted it in a moist, shady spot under trees – its preferred position. I hope it spreads rapidly! It is high on the list of connoisseur culinary herbs these days and gets lots of mention from various foodies. Its leaves evidently make a delicious pesto which hopefully I will get to concoct in the near future – that is if it decides to naturalise in my garden. A word of warning: do not mistake the poisonous lily of the valley Convallaria majalis with wild garlic. They flower at the same time displaying identical leaves and white flowers: using a botanist’s eye the flower structure is completely different however the amateur forager will need to rely on the nose; the discerning difference will be that powerful smell which makes wild garlic so distinctive.


West Kerry Magazine End April 2015 May 20, 2015

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seedlings  in hand

We seemed to have missed out on spring and were propelled straight into a false summer! The recent heat wave though enjoyable has increased the gardener’s workload with constant watering from dawn until dusk. Young plants in the poly tunnel which have an underdeveloped root system will dehydrate in minutes and die instantly therefore I have to remain on constant vigil! Working inside under melting plastic in this intense heat can only be endured for short periods of time and is not for the faint hearted. Most of my potting up is done late evening when the sun is low. I am under pressure and moving with the speed of light – squinting in the poly tunnel in the half-dark is an exhausting exercise.

Transplanting trays of vegetables such as lettuce, spinach and peas is again best done in the evening as the cooler night air will allow them a soak time. Dill is a herb which dislikes root disturbance so it is not a suitable candidate for pot sales even though it is in high demand! It needs to be sown directly into its growing position outside. I like to mark the seed drills by filling with compost as this defines where the seedlings emerge and makes them easier to identify. Sowing every two weeks until the end of June will ensure a lengthy supply of this delicious herb. Coriander is another splendid herb; growing lush in the cooler temperatures of April and May – after that it tends to run to seed and then basil takes priority in the heat of the summer. These three mentioned are annuals so regular sowings are necessary to provide a continuous supply!

Seed sowing now creates a fever like madness in me: I have so much to sow before the end of May deadline. After that it is too late as most herbs take at least ten weeks to mature. For most perennials, April is the month for sowing – I need to make final sowings of lupins, oriental poppies and hollyhocks. Many of these may not reach the sales shelf until next year but they will over-winter successfully as young potted plants. In my previous article I mentioned that I was testing the organic compost ‘Living Green’ for seed sowing. Unfortunately it has proved inconsistent, certain seed such as lettuce and rocket did not succeed whereas other varieties such as spinach and parsley thrived. I therefore can only advocate using it for potting up and planting out! It is a rich growing medium for these procedures but use a multi purpose brand for seed sowing.

Most gardens now should have undergone a complete makeover of pruning, weeding and clearing. The rains have descended so now is a perfect time to plant out once temperatures remain mild. I recommend delaying planting out tender varieties such as cucumber, courgette and tomatoes until mid May as anything can happen with our weather system. Troops of slugs are now imminent! This heavy rainfall has created a high tide in the garden and they will quickly surf and slide to reach all your delectable greens! I try my best to plant things they dislike and I am blessed that herbs do not excite their palate. Most of my frog spawn has mysteriously disappeared and sadly all I can see are a few lonesome tadpoles swimming aimlessly. I hope these strong survivors will grow legs quickly and realise their mission in life – to take a great leap out from the pond and gobble up some slugs! My goldfish as yet have made no appearance and I sense perhaps a heron thief has enjoyed a gourmet meal at my expense!