A few days before Christmas, I was having a cup of tea and looking out on the garden, planning the next jobs to be done.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw some movement on the lawn. There was a definite flash of red and I was sure it was a young fox.

But no, as the creature moved nonchalantly over the grass, I could see it was a red squirrel.

At last, I had news for our adult children – on top of a visiting barn owl, we now have a red squirrel. Of course, typical of adult children, I was met with a chorus of disbelief and told it was my imagination.

I damn near conceded to them when lo and behold and for all to see, my little squirrel appeared on the tree nearest the house. “So who’s imagining things now,” I asked my offspring.

Over the next few days, we watched the squirrel methodically climb every branch on every tree around the garden. He was here for about two weeks, but we haven’t seen him since.

Sean put out peanuts in the trees but I’d be fairly sure the crows devoured them. After years of decline, red squirrels are on the increase, so if you have any advice on keeping them around, let me know.

Variety keeps you going

The thing I love about gardening is the variety of jobs you can get through in a day. My jobs this month included cutting back the Rosa rugosa hedge, cutting back perennials and weeding around hundreds of bunches of snowdrops. Believe me, I do realise this is work for idle hands, but I love snowdrops and they look great when all the weeds are cleared away. At least with nowhere to go and no one to visit, there’s plenty of time to tackle jobs that have been long-fingered for far too long.

A case in point are two lace cap hydrangeas, which I planted against the north facing wall of the old house years ago. They were supposed to like a north-facing position and they grew fine but produced very few flowers. I kept telling myself, ‘they’re grand’ and blamed their positioning for their poor show. Well no more.

One day over Christmas, I was walking around the garden carrying a secateurs and lobbers and unluckily for that pair of hydrangeas, my eyes alighted on them. An hour later, I had one cut back by 90%. I know you should only cut back one-third of hydrangea stems at a time, but drastic action was required here.

With the job done, I couldn’t believe the amount of ground they covered. I’ll tidy it up and sprinkle a bit of grass seed on it in April or May.

Amazing amaryllis

Just before Christmas, I was in our local hardware shop and spotted a box of amaryllis bulbs. They had the bare beginnings of a shoot and at €5 a bulb, I reckoned they were worth a shot, so I really splashed out and bought two. I planted them up and within a few days, the first bulb was on the move with a single flower stem. The second one was a bit slower to get going, as it had two flower stems. What amazing bulbs they are. In jig time, the single stem produced four fabulous scarlet flowers and the double stem did even better by producing eight. It was amazing just watching the stems grow – they must have grown by a centimetre every few days.

So now that they have gone over, I’ve cut the flower stems back to within two centimetres of their base. I’ll feed them with a potash-based fertiliser and will water them regularly until the leaves start to go yellow. They will be kept in the sunniest and warmest room in the house. All going well, when they show signs of sprouting in the autumn, I’ll re-pot them and begin watering again. If you have a fool proof way of getting amaryllis to repeat flower, do let me know.

Snowdrop month

I know that every February, many of our readers make an annual pilgrimage to Co Carlow for the snowdrop festival, which runs for the entire month. However, this year things are very different.

Altamont gardens is open, but with the COVID travel rules, that’s no help to most of us. However, if we can’t get to Carlow, attempts are being made to bring the snowdrop festival to us.The provisional plan is for a series of Zoom talks starting at 8pm on Friday 5 February. The guest speaker is snowdrop specialist Alan Street of the famous Somerset-based Avon Bulbs. His talk ‘Not all Snowdrops are White’ is bound to intrigue snowdrop fans.

Other speakers on consecutive Fridays include Jason Ingram, UK Horticulture Photographer of the Year 2020, Hester Forde of Coosheen garden in Co Cork and Carl Wright of Caher Bridge garden in the Burren, both creators of wonderful gardens.

Paul Cutler, head gardener at Altamont and Robert Miller of Altamont Plant Sales, plan to produce several garden videos showcasing not just snowdrops, but everything that’s in season right now. Paul Smyth, a native of Nurney and one of the names to watch out for in Irish and UK horticulture, will also be involved in these videos. For more and to confirm its all systems go, call 059-913 0411 or www.carlowgardentrail.com.

In the green

If you are looking to add to your snowdrop collection then it would be hard to pass Robert Miller sales@altamontplants.com who has 100 varieties to choose from. Thankfully, considering the mayhem with UK suppliers due to Brexit, he is fully stocked and will be selling snowdrops in the ‘green’ until the end of March.

Plant a tree. The stems of this stand of betula jacquemontii really stand out in winter.

Time to…

  • Protect tender plants - see wrapped echium.
  • Plant trees and hedges - see group of betula jacquemontii.
  • Cut away bedraggled flax leaves.