Charlotte Grace O'Brien.

Charlotte Grace O'Brien; selections from her writings and correspondence online

. (page 16 of 16)
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then even the most defective gardening will yield lovely
corners and contrasts. My house was on the east side,
placed on the edge of a steep slope near the road. What
was cut away for preparing foundations was naturally
thrown down the slope, so when I got the land, I had,
on that side of the house, first the only possible cart-
road to the upper kitchen garden, then a very narrow
green, and then a drop in parts of near twenty feet down
in an abrupt slope. I laid out the garden as wide as
I could, planted the steep edge with laurels and Berberis
Darwinii, &c. It was well enough, but always the desire
of a wider garden there was " on me," as we say in Gaelic.
In my mind I sought to widen out in to the air, but how
was it to be done ? I suppose if I had been a rich woman
I should have built a retaining wall, spent a power of
money, and produced something that would have looked
nice some fifty years hence when well weathered and
overgrown ; but having no money to throw away, I
had to achieve my airy flights into space some other way,
and did, as I shall now tell.

Year by year I had two big rubbish collections from
house and kitchen garden put together on the hill-side.
I collected one heap (say) this year, second year worked
it up, covered with manure, &c., and grew marrows
on it. The third year it was again broken up, the best
stuff taken for flower garden uses, and the rest was
" barred " down my beshrubbed slope. Year by year
in this way I pushed out my border a foot or two in
width. At last what I called my " hanging gardens
of Babylon " had advanced so far that only some strong
laurels and other shrubs were retaining the earth, and the
fall was almost like a wall ; but it was not finished-looking.
Then I cut my laurels half-way down to the strong wood,
laid the cut branches on top, where they were well


The Making of Our Home

supported by the strong undergrowth. Then I turned
rubbish, sticks, &c., on them, and finally good garden
soil to the desired upper level. To keep it all together
I got from rough corners a lot of old, big plants, peri-
winkles, artichokes, daisies, veronicas, goats' rue every-
thing I could lay my hands on. Digging them up in
big blocks and laying them on their sides, I built a wall
of^them through and over the laurel stumps, giving a
slight slope inwards, and putting a good mass of rubbish
and earth on each tier of plants. I trusted to the roots
to hold all together, but must own I feared a landslip !
However, the landslip did not come off, and on these
airy foundations last winter I ran a walk " to the stars,"
with a charming seat-corner overlooking the river called
Cassiopeia's Chair. This walk encircles the hill I had
built-up in space, and last summer my vegetable wall
was a mass of flower and growth, and might have been
there for fifty years by the look of it. The landslide may
come off yet ; who knows ! but I hope not, and meanwhile
my green wall and airy walks are an example of the fun
one can get without money if one uses one's wits. County
Limerick people have a saying, " you can do a lot, with
and with," though it too often means with them a very
lazy " little by little."

There are not many people who want to fill a twenty-
foot drop, but there are plenty who want to hide a bare
wall, and who would also be glad to keep in their narrow
limits big, coarse, handsome plants, who could do both
in'this way. Great clumps of roots, ornamental side out,
laid one on top of another, and well backed with any
garden rubbish and light-growing shrubs with cord-like
roots to hold altogether interspersed here and there
(for instance, scarlet-berried elder, veronicas, &c.). These
coarse flowers make a fine show in a few weeks or months,
and enable one to keep the house in cut blooms without

225 p

The Making of Our Home

having to lay the finer garden bare pretty much the
whole season.

We have in our early days many of us heard of the
tragic fate of the fisherman (and his wife) who first
asked for a little rise from starvation, and who, after
many askings when Emperor, went again to salute the
Djin of the Sea.

" My wife Ilsabil will have her own will,
And hath sent me to beg a boon of thee ! "

demanding to be Pope, and thereon returning to their
primitive starvation. Now, I have to be my own " Wife
Ilsabil," and actually find myself very much inclined
to follow suit to her. I have the glorious river with its
rushing waters from all west Ireland ; I have the sweeping
tides boiling up from the Atlantic at springtide, or
mirroring the clouds and the stars when the passion of
their movement is for a moment allayed ; I have golden
furze shining like the helmet of Goliath on the hill-
tops ; I have the delicate ferns and mosses of Erin, the
primroses and wood anemones and heather besung of
poets, the hazel catkins and the golden goslings, the
larch tufts, and the veils of tender green beech leaves.
What have I not ? Ha ! ha ! There is always a " Wife
Ilsabil " in the corner of the mind who is quite ready
to do a bit of grumbling before she is asked, and she
says, you have no wall / " And just think what you could
do if you had a fine kitchen garden wall ; yes, and just
turn your mind to all the innumerable miles of unused
walls, demesne walls, garden walls, labourers' cottage
walls, walls old and new, derelict or shining with wet
plaster all over this whole country of Ireland, and going
to waste, and you trying to grow roses and clematis, figs
and peaches, apples and plums, myrtles and what not
on the few yards the house affords as wall shelter. Oh,
it is pitiful ! " Poor me and I feel very sorry for


The Making of Our Home

myself when she talks that way, and represents that not
only I have no wall but that I should destroy the very
picturesque beauty of the place if I attempted to build
one. Here I lie down on the sofa, take up Robinson's
Flower Garden or Irish Gardening, and straightway
begin to plant and scheme. Trinity College Gardens
or Glasnevin do not count, and Kew is not in it when you
come to look at my visionary walls. A noble sight they
are ; you may walk by them and gather dozens of the
bloomiest peaches, and no wasps will sting you. But
too long I have left the actual, and now let us return
to our muttons.

I approach roses with a sense of awe, equal not to
their beauty but to my own ignorance. It is not to say
that I am no expert in roses, but that I am grossly,
palpably, unbelievably ignorant. I do not know the
difference between a " Tea " and an H. T. or an H. P.
or any other mysterious letters. I should be ashamed
before the veriest non-gardener at any exhibition if I
were asked to sort or name the kinds even in the rough.
I can neither graft, nor bud, nor prune ; nevertheless
I am getting into roses ; but I must begin from the
beginning and explain how it happens I am so ignorant.
Well, when I laid down the east garden (my first) I said
I would have roses ; but chips of rock were not suitable,
so I made a big bed three feet deep, well manured, &c.,
and planted. But, no ! except the regular sweet old
stagers that bloom for a month in June, the roses refused
to grow. I tried them here, I tried them there always
the same story the bought grafted roses failed. I gave
it up ; all the more because I had on the house one so
glorious that I hardly needed more a climbing
Devoniensis. This rose, up the front of the house,
carries its hundred blooms at once in spring, and seventy
or so in autumn, besides odd flowers all the year round.


The Making of Our Home

There are two in bloom now (February and March).
A friend who had been reared in Guernsey said to me
she never saw finer there. It is a great puzzle to me
why people fail to flower this rose. Every cutting I
stick in flowers as freely as the parent. I cannot help
thinking that people prune it, and prune off their blooms.
I never prune it. It drives up great shoots often ten
feet long. These fan out into a wonderful hand, each
finger bearing a lot of blooms, the whole group generally
between twenty and thirty. When these roses are over
and cut away, the main shoot throws side-buds, and these
flower between spring and autumn. It would not do
to allow these long shoots to run away altogether, as that
would leave the lower part bare, so I tie a string to the
top, and haul down the ends as low as I can without
breaking, and tie them in. They then begin to throw
strong shoots again, so that really what wood has ever
been made by the tree is there still, arching in and out,
fighting its way among stronger plants ; but I have to
help it against the jessamine, which would kill anything.
Not this year has roaring March come in like a lion ;
rather indeed as a Polar bear he has come snarling along,
bareing his frost-white teeth, his soft, mazy, snow-white
locks shaking and quivering to the East wind. He seeks
the tender green things neglected throughout our mild,
unguarded winter, and stabs them with his ice-cold
fangs. And yet some days the dazzling sun of the Polar
summer has followed his footsteps. On the 6th I think
it was, for two hours or so, though the frost was caked
white under the shadow of the hill, I lay out basking,
baking in the sunshine on a carpet of needles under the
Pinus insignis, the grey needles underneath dry and
crisp, and hot, the green needles overhead shivering
and shimmering against the clear, blue, frost sky, while
the great bole and branches of the pine caught me with


The Making of Our Home

desire for my photo man, kind Mr. Hurley, who has
allowed me to use his charming photos for these papers.*
For, indeed, the right use of photography is to interpret
the intricacies of vegetation, or of the human countenance,
or animal life. Scenery at a distance is invariably a
failure. So I was thinking as I lay in the sun under my
pinus looking far out over the island, beyond to the
Beeves Lighthouse, and away and away, and my heart
sank at the thought of even attempting to speak of our
river, of our ever varying, ever wonderful Shannon,
which lay before my eyes, it and its country spread
wide in its sweeping magnificence of tender, frost bright
colour. Looking at this photograph you see indeed
the garden and the island, and the Port of Foynes all
right, but you do not see even in a suggestion the great
plains of Limerick and Tipperary extending thirty,
forty, fifty, perhaps even sixty miles, where the Golden
Vale intervenes between the Galtees and Lough Gur
hills to the south-east, and the Keeper range, Limerick,
Cratloe and Clare hills to the north-east, at the foot of
which the Shannon loses itself to our view after spreading
up to the Fergus estuary to a width of five miles or more.
The Port of Foynes is enclosed by the island, which
occupies a sort of corner. North of the island the main
water flows three miles wide before it divides as you
go up the river. It is salt water, so the tides give a
constant variety, sometimes brimful to the green edges,
again leaving apparently only the real river in its oozy

That March day under the pine I lay and watched the
gradual lifting from off the distances of the smoke-like
band of fog that hid the hills and the far off plains, while

* James Hurley, travelling 1 photographer, 14 Stamer Street,
South Circular Road C. G. O'B.


The Making of Our Home

all near at hand lay in a blaze of hot sun. The sky above
the brown fog band was of that lustrous, blue-green
transparency one sees when the air is saturated with
moisture and sunshine and partially crystallised by frost.
It is a very bad weather sign, but is most beautiful, and
brings with it occasionally most wonderful mirage. Look
down at the river and you will see that blue-green band
repeated You will not look down on it but through it.
It stands before your eyes raising the banks above almost
into cloudland. I have seen on such a day as that the
whole wide river towards Clare apparently lifted so as
to overflow Cahircon, Kildysart, and the country beyond.
So perfect was the illusion that for the moment I was
taken in by it myself, and to make it fully natural a
good-sized ship with trailing boat, every cord and colour
clear, was floating at first over the hill land, then it actually
rose into the clouds smoke-like clouds through which
it seemed to pass in and out. A most extraordinary
case of the Flying Dutchman ! We watched it for
nearly an hour, and as the sun gained power the mirage
sank till the whole picture regained its normal river bed.
The ship may have been behind the island, I do not
know, but we had terrible weather for a week after.
It is not to be supposed that because I am ignorant
about roses, and because bought roses are " cross " to
grow here, that I have none. Not at all. I have small
roses and large ambitions, and hope as time goes on
to have something to show. To begin with, I could
not be without the old friends, and moss (pink and
white), cabbage, Provence, malmaison and monthly,
with many another of the sweet Juners delicious for
potpourri are here ; but besides those, having found
rose cuttings very easy to grow, I have been laying friends
under contribution, and find that whereas the budded
roses fail, the cuttings do very well. Of course the


The Making of Our Home

kinds are rather limited, as many of the heavy exhibition
roses are hard to grow ; but, on the other hand, all the
Ramblers and Teas, and Banksians and Multifloras, are
very free. Then I have taken to growing from seed,
and this year hope to see bloom on a dozen Rosa Rugosa
seedlings, and in a year or two to have a great set-off of
handsome briar roses. I have also sweet briars coming
on, and a lovely rose I got out of a ditch near Lough
Derg that one botanist says is Rosa Lucida a lovely
thing at every season, large, flat rose-pink blooms with a
big bunch of golden anthers, shining bronzy leaves,
and orange-red berries in bunches of a peculiar shape,
most helpful for autumn gathering. It is planted close
to sweet briar and R. Rugosa, so I expect to get hybrids
out of the seedlings. Oh, yes ! I look at my inch-high
seedlings and say to myself I will have briar roses all over
the whole place from the best seeds. I will have them
growing in the midst of thorn and honey-suckle and
furze ; even as the wild briars grow, even so I will have
them uplifting on their thorny arms the glory of the
June summer. I will puzzle the botanists of another
generation, and when my bones are dust and my good
spade rust, when my house is pulled down and my garden
asphalt and bricks, my extra special wild briars and my
daffodils will still linger on the hill-side and scent the
bloomy air for generations that know me not, nor mine.
This place by the salt river has one great advantage
the sub-tropicals are possible. New Zealand flax grows
splendidly, and is a great feature in the place. I really
do not know why it succeeds so well here, for we have
often really hard frosts, and inland those frosts seem to
kill ; but I think it may be partly because the leaves do
not grow as succulent as inland. My green flax does not
bloom, but my striped yellow kind had a spike of flower
and ripened seed one year. Cordyline, the Australian


The Making of Our Home

cabbage palm, is also satisfactory, but I have wholly
failed growing yuccas. Perhaps the salt in the air injures
them, for they succeed splendidly inland, or perhaps
the place is too dry. As they are expensive I have not
really given them fair trials, but some day I may discover
a garden from which I could buy a lot of quite small
seedlings cheap and young which would probably be my
best chance of success.

To return to the question of the roses, I always think
in reading gardening papers that owing to the prevalent
desire to " hurry up " things are made a great deal more
difficult and troublesome for the amateur without heat
or an experienced gardener than there is any need.
Again and again I see elaborate directions given for what
is really quite simple. Take this question of growing
roses from cutting, for instance. I started a very rich,
deeply-dug bed in a particularly sheltered and sunny
spot, called it my " incubator," and here I have since
grown my cuttings, carnation seeds, &c. I am often
asked when you should put in the cuttings. My answer
always is, " When you can get them." Really, I don't
think it makes much difference, except that the strong
summer heat may kill off some if they are neglected, but
one should have them long, deeply planted, firmly
stamped down; and do not be beguiled into thinking
the roses are safe because they shoot and even show
flower till the second year, or rather the winter of the
second year that is, if you are not able to grow them
on in heat to hurry the rootlets out of the callus. If
you have only an open border, take my advice and be
patient, leave them alone, and they'll all come home and
carry their roots behind them !


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Online LibraryCharlotte Grace O'BrienCharlotte Grace O'Brien; selections from her writings and correspondence → online text (page 16 of 16)