Blown away by gales but still ready for Bloom

Winds wreaked havoc in part of the walled garden. But everything’s shipshape for Bloom today

Winds wreaked havoc in part of the walled garden. But everything’s shipshape for Bloom today

'BLOWN away by Ireland" trumpeted last week's world headlines, as the BBC News, The Daily Mailand even The Huffington Postall remarked on Ireland's wild and windy May weather, and the unfortunate havoc that it wreaked on Michelle Obama's normally flawless coiffure. But whatever about the American first lady's flyaway updo, spare a thought for the OPW's Victorian walled kitchen garden in the Phoenix Park.

Battered and buffeted by gale force winds that reached speeds of up to 90-100km an hour, some of its more vulnerable crops were so badly damaged by the recent squally weather that OPW gardeners Meeda Downey and Brian Quinn were forced to consign the young plants to the compost heap.

And all of this happened just a few short days before today’s opening of Bloom, Ireland’s annual gardening extravaganza that brings tens of thousands of visitors to the walled garden and its environs (and lasts til Bank Holiday Monday).


“Half of the bedding dahlias were shredded – the leaves were just stripped off by the force of the gales,” a despondent Brian explains, as he points out the damage. “And the gooseberry bushes that we’d pruned so carefully last summer were flattened. But the worst hit were the brassicas _ the young cabbage, calabrese and Brussels sprouts plants that we planted out in the walled garden a few weeks ago after raising them all in the glasshouse earlier this spring. We’ve lost at least half the crop.”

In a grim irony not lost on Meeda and Brian, it appears that the yards of “protective” plastic green netting that the gardeners used to cover the young brassica crops proved instead to be the plants’ undoing.

“We netted all of the brassicas a few weeks ago to stop any damage from birds or cabbage-white butterflies,” explains Meeda. “But the wind tore the netting half-loose and then whipped it back and forth over the plants until they were ruined.”

But why didn’t the OPW gardeners remove the netting once they saw the damage the wind was causing? “Because it was a case of “Ní Féidir Leat” rather than “Is Féidir Linn”, says Brian with a flash of grim humour .

“We weren’t able to get back inside the garden until after the Obamas had left the country. And by then it was too late. ”

Oh dear.

To top things off, what brassica plants remained in the walled kitchen garden then began to be attacked by cut-worms. These earth-coloured, soil-dwelling caterpillars gnaw away at the roots and lower stems of young plants, and can quietly but very quickly devastate whole areas of crops.

“In just one day, five young calabrese plants keeled over,” explains Brian. “So we decided to ask Dr Al-Amidi of SuperNemos ( to call by and have a look.

An Irish-designed, broad-spectrum and organic bio-pesticide, SuperNemos uses a unique combination of nematodes (microscopically tiny worms) to kill a wide variety of soil-based pests, including the aforementioned cutworms, but is entirely safe for humans, animals, bees, bumblebees, earthworms and other beneficial insects such as ladybirds. It was used in the walled kitchen garden last summer with strikingly successful results.

“I suppose that we took for granted just how effective SuperNemos was after one application,” admits Brian, “whereas Dr Al-Amidi had warned us to make sure to reapply it in mid-August, to prevent any possible problems with cutworms re-occurring this spring”.

On examining the walled garden, Dr Al-Amidi confirmed the signs of cut-worm damage. “He recommended that we spray the entire garden with SuperNemos again,” explains Brian. “And it worked a treat – the damage stopped almost immediately.” So despite the unpromising start, at least some things were going right for the OPW gardeners by the end of last week.

On another positive note, the walled garden’s magnificent herbaceous border also survived the gales remarkably unscathed, thanks to the careful ministrations of Brian and Meeda’s fellow OPW gardener Declan Donohoe, who individually staked its taller flowers before the storms hit. As a result, visitors to the garden will be able to enjoy the wonderful sight of its peacock-blue delphiniums, its irises and its clumps of rose-pink paeonies.

Also surprisingly undamaged are the garden’s flourishing potato patches and its freshly-planted herb plot, which includes thyme, parsley, coriander and cheery lines of purple-flowering chives.

And at least the wind didn’t wreak any havoc whatsoever upon the walled garden’s hundreds of heavily-laden strawberry plants, or do any obvious damage to its newly-emerged pea, mangetout and climbing French bean seedlings.

The neat lines of newly-installed willow wigwams are also still intact, as are the sweet pea plants that are beginning to clamber up them. In fact it would be fair to say that the walled garden still looks rather splendid, despite the recent stormy weather.

But Brian is still worried. “We have celery, celeriac, pumpkins, Florence fennel and sweet corn in the glasshouse, just begging to be planted out,” he explains with genuine concern.

“Already the sweet corn is nearly as high as my knee. Normally we’d have them all planted in time for Bloom but the big worry is that if we get any more gales as strong as last week’s, any young plants will be damaged. And we definitely don’t want to risk that happening again.”

But whatever about all of the walled garden’s plants being comfortably ensconced in time for Bloom, it’s now unlikely that its two hives of honeybees will be in situ before the crowds have departed for another year. This is because the tall metal-and-wood chamber that will protect and partially conceal the beehives from any visitors (with the exception of a Perspex viewing window) is still in the process of construction.

Meeda, quite understandably, is relieved that her responsibilities as regards tending to the garden’s hives will come after, and not during, the hustle and bustle of Bloom. But her worries aren’t quite over just yet.

As a trained apiarist, she’s been nominated by Brian to take care of a rather different hive that he inadvertently discovered in the walled garden late last week as a result of all the storm damage.

It’s a large wasps’ nest that was, up until very recently, cunningly concealed amongst the storm-damaged gooseberry bushes and right beside the main garden path, but which must now be removed in time for Bloom and its many visitors.

“Yes, it’s true – if it wasn’t for the storms, we might never have discovered the wasps’ nest until it was too late,” agrees Brian, somewhat reluctantly.

So that old saying about it being an ill wind that blows no good is true after all . . .

** The OPW’s Victorian walled kitchen garden is in the grounds of the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, beside the Phoenix Park Café and Ashtown Castle. The gardens are open daily from 10am to 4pm

** Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer

WHAT TO: sow, plant and do now

Sow in gentle warmth in pots or modules for a late tunnel/greenhouse crop: French beans (dwarf and climbing), sweet corn, courgettes, pumpkins, summer squashes, marrows and melons. You can still sow cucumbers for late summer, and calabrese and self-blanching celery for late autumn crops. Shade propagators and young seedlings from strong sun at all times now. Its also worth sowing tender crops like French and runner beans, sweetcorn, basil, ridge cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and squashes in a greenhouse, tunnel or propagator for planting outside in a couple of weeks - these will be at least 7-10 days earlier than similar crops sown now outside, and avoids any loss through slug damage.

Sow outdoors, sow in modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop:Beetroot, carrots, cabbages (leafy non-hearting and late Stonehead), peas (early vars. now), calabrese, courgettes and marrows, Witloof chicory (for winter forcing), endives, salad onions, Florence fennel, French and runner beans, leeks (an early var. for baby leeks), landcress, lettuces, perilla, orache, kohl rabi, kales (early June for winter cropping), radishes, rocket, swiss chards, spinach, summer squashes, sweet corn, white turnips and swedes, summer purslane, lambs lettuce, salad mixes, herbs such as basil, oregano, parsley, coriander, dill, fennel etc. and perennial hardy herbs including sorrel. Also sow some single, quick growing, annual flowers such as Limnanthes (poached egg flower), Calendula, Californian poppies, Convolvulus tricolor, nasturtiums, Phacelia, sunflowers etc. to attract beneficial insects like hoverflies to help with pest control, and bees to help with crop pollination. Sow fast-growing green manures like buckwheat, red clover, mustard (a brassica so watch rotations) and Phacelia, to improve the soil, lock-up carbon and feed worms (after digging in), on any empty patches of ground that wont be used for 6 weeks or more, or which needs improving.

Plant out: All well-established, module-raised young plants as long as they are well hardened-off.

Do: Earth up potatoes, keep seedlings and young plants well watered, continue to harden off well-established, module-raised plants, keep glasshouse /polytunnel well-ventilated, put up protective netting (Bionet) against carrot fly, net brassicas, provide support for tall plants (beans, peas, tomatoes), hoe/handpick weeds.

** All sowing details courtesy of Nicky Kyle at

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon is an Irish Times contributor specialising in gardening