We didn’t plant the roses, the peony, the hydrangea, or the laburnum tree that’s doing its best to bloom despite being strangled by ivy.

Nor did we plant the holly, fern, or the bay.

It was Madge’s garden long before it was ours.

Our house in Ballyfermot was built in the early 1950s. And to my knowledge, Madge lived in it from the beginning, and subsequently for over 60 years until shortly before her death in 2015.

Ballyfermot Communion
Our house is in the background of this 1953 communion day image taken in the grounds of the Church of the Assumption.

The occasional older passerby has asked if we knew her. We didn’t sadly. They all refer to her as a lovely woman.

From our neighbour, who lived next door to Madge his whole life (some 50 years plus), we have learned more about her and her family.

We learned that she and her husband raised six children in the two-bedroom parlour house (a modest number by Irish standards of the time).

That she loved tennis and Frank Sinatra.

That she was tall and blonde.

Other things we’ve learned ourselves as we have gotten to know the house and gardens better.

We learned that like us, the family were dog lovers. We found old dog tags saved in the attic, part of a broken statue of what appears to be an Alsatian in the ivy swamped undergrowth at the side of the shed, and the bones of dogs buried long ago, deep in the soil of the back garden.

This last discovery was made one day while I was digging over a bed under the watchful eye of my own canine companion, Patch.

And seeing those bones gave me a greater sense of connection with the lives lived there – of Madge and her family – and of course their dogs. All of us passing through this place, at different times.

It was clear that Madge loved to garden. A source of connection for us too.

Last summer in the back garden, several tall and fragrant roses each took their turn blooming, as if deliberately timed.

madges roses
First of Madge’s roses to bloom this year, giving off a lovely sherbet scent.

As well as the roses and other flowers, our neighbour confirmed that the brick rectangle on the ground that we are now using as a raised bed, was once the foundation of a greenhouse, where Madge grew cacti, which we are told were her favourite plants.

But while preparing the bed earlier this year, I found a couple of handwritten plant labels announcing ‘tomatoes’ and ‘beetroot’. Who knows what else she grew in times past?

I hope Madge would approve of our small endeavours with her garden.

There’s beetroot growing in the ‘greenhouse’ once more…


Old Ballyfermot image borrowed from Ken Larkin.


Making organic plant feed

It smells foul – but nettle ‘tea’ is meant to be a great (free and organic) feed for productive soil

I’ve done a fair bit to nourish and cultivate the soil in the garden since we move to Ballyfermot last July.

I started out rotting down green waste into the soil under a cover of carpet and cardboard over the winter months.

Then I sieved the top soil in the 2.5 metre by 1.5 metre raised bed – breaking it down and picking out stones, random bits of plastic and metal junk, and the bones of deceased family dogs buried long ago.

I then mixed in garden centre-bought compost – litres and litres of the stuff. Paying the extra for high-quality, organic compost.

I transferred compost infused soil from the bed into pots for planting various veg, herbs, fruits.

And the bed itself is host to brassicas (broccoli, kale), alliums (shallots, garlic), and ‘goosefoot’ veg (spinach, chard, beetroot).

The soil has been working for two months now and I’m conscious that its nutrients will be dwindling.

In my bid to be 100% organic, I bought a wormery with a view to using the ‘castings’ (liquid) from this to feed the soil. I left it a little late to get this set up, and six weeks or so on, there’s no liquid to be had yet (and the worms seem to be taking their time getting through the food waste).

I’ve also got a small compost bin on the go (only about a third of the waste from our two-person house goes into the wormery, the rest goes in the compost bin).

This is cheekily repurposed council brown bin that was in the back garden when we moved in last year.

I plan to use the compost to dress the beds and pots with nutrient rich soil on an ongoing basis – but again, there’s nothing to work with yet.

All the while the soil nutrition is depleting.

A friend of mine mentioned comfrey ‘tea’ a few weeks ago, and it set me googling.

While I don’t have access to a comfrey plant (I’ve added getting one to my long list), I quickly found that there are other options for making free feed – nettles and weeds.

I took myself (and Patch) off to the nearby Phoenix Park to stock up on fresh nettles and docks leaves (I read that yellow dock and burdock are the ones to use, but I thought I’d try plain old ‘dock’ and hope for the best).

Other weeds that are recommended are chickweed and horsetail. Neither of which I’ve heard of – but some day I shall endeavour to hunt out.

Seaweed is another option for those living near the sea. Animal manure too – diluted in water.

Nettle is highly recommended and the ‘tea’ very simple to prepare. Just place freshly cut young nettle leaves in water for a couple of weeks (ideally from plants that have not flowered yet). You can crush or bruise the leaves a bit to speed up the distilling process.

I covered mine in plastic and left it in a shady part of the garden.

I had been forewarned about the smell. Removing the plastic cover after a couple of weeks, a thick bovine aroma filled the air. It was borderline sickening.

I mixed one part nettle ‘tea’ with 10 parts water and gave the plants a dose, spreading the smell all over the garden… but I’m sure it’ll be worth it.

I’ve enough undiluted nettle tea for five or six more feeds. I’ve found mixed information about how often to feed – and I’ve lots of different plants on the go, so reckon I’ll give them a small dose weekly – and hopefully soon the worms will come up trumps.

But I reckon Patch and I might go back to the park and collect some more nettles before they flower, just in case.

Hottest day of the year so far

Plants and Patch soaking up the glorious sunshine.

Wicklow retreat

Taking a break from the city for a few days in Mucklagh, Wicklow.