Saturday, March 7, 2009

February 2009

Happy Spring!

February 1 is the first day of spring in Ireland. All four seasons start on different dates in the former "British Isles" than they do in the US and other countries. Rather than starting on the solstices and equinoxes (Dec. 21, March 21, June 21, Sept. 21) the calendar is thus:
Spring - February 1, Summer - May 1, Autumn - August 1, Winter - November 1. These dates are exactly halfway between the solstice and equinox dates and were celebrated by the pagan Celts as the festivals of Imbolc (spring), Beltane (summer), Lughnasa (autumn) and Samhain (winter).

The temperature and look of the landscape don't change so dramatically throughout the year in Ireland so the seasons are based more on daylength. Already the days are about 3 hours longer than at the beginning of the year and the plants are really waking up. It makes sense for winter to be November through January when the days are at their shortest. Now you know why Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream takes place on June 21, which is the middle of summer in Ireland and the UK.

During February the days got longer and the sun higher, and the herbaceous plants, which never really went dormant, burst into growth. Mama cows and their newborn calves started appearing in the fields around our house, happy to be eating the fresh green grass.

At the beginning of February we took advantage of a clear, crisp weekend to bring Sonya to the sea for a long walk. We found the perfect place for blind-dog walking in a flat field next to the rocky shore, near the coastal village of Doonbeg.

We had a lovely view of Slieve (Mount) Callan, a few miles inland.

Bill and Sonya

The walk ended up at a beautiful strand (sandy beach) where a few other folks were out enjoying the rays.

In mid-February it warmed right up for about a week and we were working in just long sleeve shirts and even t-shirts. Here Bill is laying a brick edging for a new garden that we're designing and planting.
Grass grows unbelievably fast here and even climbs up into shrubs and low-branched trees! It invades gardens so quickly that we are recommending brick edges set in 4 inch deep concrete for those who want low-maintenance plantings. This is at a holiday home near the sea and the owner won't be able to weed it frequenly. (We planted ivy around the perimeter which will completely cover the ugly wall in a few years.)

We put up a polytunnel (hoop house) in our garden - essential for starting seedlings now and for growing heat-loving vegetables in the summer. Trying to grow tomatoes, peppers and eggplant outside was a failure in last year's cool, wet summer. Our landlord Aiden bought the polytunnel for the property (what a guy!)and we did the work of setting it up. It's filling up fast with trays and pots of little seedlings.

Toward the end of the month it briefly turned back to winter. We woke up last week to a weird glow outside the windows, and when we got out of bed we were very surprised to see about 2 inches of wet snow on the ground. By mid-day it had melted. This is the first time in three winters here (2005, 2008, 2009) that we've seen real snow. We had a dusting one day in January but it melted in about 20 minutes.

Dublin, on the other hand, is on the east side of the country where it's quite a bit colder and gets more snow. When London was buried in twelve inches of snow in last month Dublin also got dumped on. Without snow plows and snow tires, hundreds of commuters were stranded in their cars in the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin.

It was weird to see the thatched roof covered with snow!

I was inspired by our trip to Barcelona and decided to try making some tile mosaics. Actually, it's something I've been interested in ever since we built our house and I tiled both bathrooms. But seeing all the incredible mosaics in Barcelona was the final push I needed to try my hand.
First stop for any new project:the public library to get some books on making mosaics. Then onto the tile store for a hand-held tile cutter, free sample tiles and square sheets of bath tiles - one euro for each one foot by one foot sheet! I've also been saving bits of old plates that we dig up in the garden and broken pots from our landscaping clients. Then I found some inexpensive things to use as bases (a second hand picture frame, a terracotta saucer and some little terracotta pots from a garden center) and started playing around. These are the first three things I made.

I was pleased with the way this lizard came out! After seeing all the dragon/lizard imagery in Barcelona I was really excited when I found a cardboard lizard and googly reptile eyes at a craft store. The sides took a long time so the next one I make will have painted sides instead. It's about two feet long and could be a garden sculpture or hang on a conservatory wall.

This is how our veg garden looked at the beginning of March. We have been eating carrots, potatoes, leeks, chard and kale fresh out of the garden right through the winter. We can't get over the yields of root crops here - double to triple what we would get in the same amount of row space in upstate NY. Things never stop growing. I dug some carrots and parsnips as long as my forearm! Now we're planting peas, salad greens, broad beans, and starting to eat cauliflower and purple sprouting broccoli that we planted last fall. And we only started this garden a year ago, when we first moved in. This is a good country for food security thanks to a year-round growing season.

The perennial gardens are starting to wake up as well.

The Irish Economy
I'm sure some of you are wondering about the economy here. It's pretty bad right now - lots of job layoffs ("redundancies") and plant closures. Unemployment is up to 10 percent and people are freaking out because they remember the hard times, which lasted into the 1980's here. At the same time, the Irish don't take things lying down and there have been massive protests in Dublin, by teachers and schoolchildren, union groups and old-age pensioners. A huge number of old people showed up at the optimistically named march (many were using walkers and wheelchairs) and the government backed down on their plans to take away the free medical cards for over-70's from those with higher incomes/assets. Now every Irish person over 70 will continue to receive 100% free medical care and prescriptions, and the government will have to find other ways to trim billions in spending.

What does the end of the Celtic Tiger mean for Bill and I? Well, landscape calls have been slower compared to last spring but we are still working outside when the weather permits. I imagine that we won't get many of the nice big projects that we got last year, building patios, raised beds, stone walls and paths. But a lot of people here invested in big gardens during the Celtic Tiger years and I imagine they will not completely let them go. We are doing advertising saying we can assist people who want to learn how to maintain their own flower gardens and start new vegetable gardens, a popular cost-saving measure in recessionary times.

We will also start selling at the farmer's market again when it starts up later this month. This year we'll have some of our own produce and will also try selling some of the mosaics I've been working on. Rather than cooking hot lunch foods at the market, which was a bit of a pain, we're going to sell foods we can make the night before, like sushi rolls and containers of homemade hummus and salsa. I ordered a lot of flower seeds to have bouquets for the market, and if I can grow enough flowers I am thinking about doing flowers for weddings. People will still be getting married during the recession but they'll be looking for ways to economise on wedding expenses.

Bill and I are creative survivors - we can pinch a penny till it squeals and grow a lot of our own food, so I'll think we'll manage to get by. I'm just thankful that it's spring - imagine how much more depressed we'd be if it was November and the economy was crashing- and I'm thankful that we, and our loved ones, have our good health.