In 2008, Chrys Gardener and her husband Bill Carini immigrated to Ireland from Ithaca in New York State to further pursue their careers as landscape gardeners.
Having identified Ireland as a prime location for gardening activities due to its lengthy growing season, the couple took the plunge and now Chrys is the project manager of The Irish Seedsavers Association in Scariff.
Speaking to The Clare Champion, Chrys explained that throughout her career, she always encouraged people to take up gardening and had worked with a not-for-profit organisation in the US, running a programme for low-income families teaching them how to grow their own produce.
“My aim has always been to get as many people gardening as possible. One of the reasons for coming here was that I could get Irish citizenship, because my great-grandparents were from Clare and my aunt was raised here. I’d never been to Ireland so we came on a holiday and loved it. We left in March and left a snowstorm behind us in upstate New York. When we arrived in Ireland, the flowers were blooming and we thought, what a great place it was for gardening,” she explained.
Chrys and her husband participated in a programme known as WWOOF, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. This group organises an exchange programme whereby those interested in gardening or farming can travel abroad and stay with host farms for a period.
“The WWOOF programme is a good way for people interested in finding out about gardening and travelling to do both at the same time. They arrange it with host farms so that you can work with them for a week up to a year and you work in exchange for bed and board. We did that for 10 months in Ireland. We wanted to get to know the country and we plunged ourselves into the community. We stayed with 12 families in 10 months in areas of Clare, Cork and Galway and that’s how we ended up connecting with Clare. The farms involved don’t have to be commercial farms, it can be with smallholdings, and through this we made good connections. We liked the size of Ennis and loved the Burren and made good connections here,” Chrys added.
Following their participation in the WWOOF scheme in 2005, the couple made the decision to uproot altogether and move to Clare in February 2008.
“We decided to seize the day. I know that people wonder how do we cope with all the rain here but as a plant you couldn’t get better conditions. Where I’m from in Ithaca, which is about five hours north of New York City, spring and autumn is the only time suited to gardening because we get such extremes in winter and summer. For instance, a maple tree in the US grows a foot a year but here they would grow four foot in a year. This is because when it’s very hot a maple tree will loose approximately 100 gallons of moisture a day from its leaves as it releases water to prevent its leaves from wilting. In the first year here we couldn’t get over the size of root vegetables, things like carrots and leeks, and we also couldn’t believe that a lot of our garden plants went through the winter,” she added.
Having been a member of the Irish Seedsavers Association, Chrys took up her new post as project manager on December 9 last.
Speaking about her new role, she explained what she has in store for Irish Seedsavers.
“I’m looking to utilise volunteers in a more organised and efficient way, so we will be recruiting and training volunteers. I hope to beautify the area and make it nice for visitors. A lot of people don’t realise that this is a lovely area to walk around. There are 20 hectares here and I’ll be working on creating a walking tour of the grounds with a visitors’ guide. What’s interesting is that with all the different crops and plants, the grounds will be different in every season. I also propose dropping the visitor fee. I would rather see people spending their money on seeds. Almost all the seeds we have are of Irish indigenous varieties.
“The aim of Seedsavers is to encourage people to take up this lost art. Thirty years ago you saved seeds so you could have a crop for the following year, you didn’t have packet seeds you could buy. The advantage of saving seeds from your garden is that you will be harvesting what performs best from your own micro environment,” she said.
Having left snowstorms in New York, Chrys thought she wouldn’t have to face such weather here. But when the current freeze took hold, she was able to bring her knowledge to bear at Seedsavers.
She has some advice for gardeners who are worried about their plants and crops following the prolonged cold spell.
“One thing is that people do a lot of growing in containers or plastic pots here and in a normal winter they are fine but containers can actually do more damage to a plant if there is a prolonged freeze. This is because the roots will be up to the edge of the pots and as the pots are more likely to freeze, the roots will be more exposed to it and will also freeze. Even though the ground is frozen, there is the chance that the roots may not freeze to the extent that it will kill the plant. The greatest concern to a gardener is the prolonged cold. In fact, prolonged temperatures of -5 is probably more damaging to plants than one or two cold nights, where the temperature is less than -10 or -12,” she explained.
One solution in future cold spells is that evergreen branches, hay or straw can be laid over the ground which will protect and insulate plants from the frost.
“In the spring you may look around the garden and think that all your plants and shrubs have died but don’t panic, you may not be able to tell until May. While the tops of the plants have probably been burnt by the frost, the roots may not be dead. My advice would be, don’t be too hasty. Roses often survive this cold weather, the top part of the stems will die but they will be alive down towards the roots. Wait until May for new growth before you begin pruning or uprooting plants,” Chrys advised.
While there will be little to grow over the current period, Chrys acknowledges that potatoes and root vegetables sown have been greatly affected but she added that crops or plants in walled gardens or in sheltered areas may not have been affected as adversely as people may think.
“Believe it or not, there are positives to this bad weather, it will mean the slugs and slug eggs will die. Slugs are one of the biggest problems we have in Ireland and they eat a lot of things in the garden, so there’s a silver lining.
“Another good thing is that frost actually improves the soil structure because the freezing and thawing action helps break the clay in the ground and people may find it easier to dig in the spring. We may also see less potato blight because it is carried over the winter in potatoes that are left in the ground. If these potatoes are killed by the soil freezing, then the blight spores will not survive without a host,” she concluded.
January gardening tips
Seeds that can be sown later this month include onions and leeks (start in pots indoors where it’s warm, then grow under lights or move to a polytunnel – they can take some freezing so they won’t be damaged in a polytunnel even if it stays cold).
Cold-tolerant salad greens (lettuce, rocket, mizuna, mustard, spinach, to name some) can be sown in polytunnels this month. Again, they can take some frost. They will grow slowly to start but will come on more quickly in February and March.
Some gardeners may have already sown early potatoes in polytunnels. If the tops were damaged due to freezing temperatures in the polytunnels, don’t despair; the potato tubers will most likely push out new shoots and leaves.