Tuesday, January 17, 2017


I had a large bag of moss left over from my attempts at creating driftwood sculptures. I didn’t want to throw it away so looked for a good use for it. As its way too early to make hanging baskets I delved into the process of making up Kokedama displays. 

What is Kokedama?
Kokedama or “moss ball” is the practice of getting a bare rooted plant, rolling the roots up in a muddy ball and then wrapping the whole mess in moss before winding it in string or cotton. This can then be either hung up or displayed on an altar-like platform like they originally did in japan. The most popular place to see them is on wedding tables at the moment.


Kokedama is a contemporary form of bonsai. The history of kokedama is a bit vaugue, but is said to be an offshoot of the Nearai method popular in Japan’s Edo period (1603-1867). In the Nearai style, the bonsai is grown so fully and tightly in a pot that the root and soil maintain its shape when taken out of the pot. Essentially the bonsai was grown in a pot until it became so root bound that the soil and roots would stay in place when removed from the pot. The plant would then be placed on a stand, without a pot, to be enjoyed.

Kokedama takes the planterless bonsai method a step further and covers the root base with moss. There needn’t be any root trimming as with bonsai and we can make displays from any indoor plant.

Creating a masterpiece
For my displays I chose variegated ivy but any low maintenance plant will do. Putting together the display was surprisingly easy.
The only things needed are a plant, a big piece of moss, some compost/soil mix and some string.

  • Soak the moss in some water and squeeze the excess water out of the piece of moss. Trim off any really brown bits and compost.
  • Remove the plant from its pot, you can tease out the roots and remove some of the compost too if it’s too large.
  • Wet the compost/soil mix and form the soil into a sphere.
  • Put the soil in the centre of the piece of moss, with the moss facing downwards.
  • Fold the moss around the soil and firmly mold it around the roots
  • Wrap the string around the construction. Make sure you use enough rope to ensure the moss stays on.
  • Secure the string firmly; I used cotton on some of mine as it’s invisible. I’d think waxed types are better as they will last longer.

Care of the planters
I’ve put one or two of mine on concrete bases and I think they look pretty good. I’ve suspended the ball on a large screw and if you decide to display yours in a dish it might a good idea to have a few stones under the base to allow for air flow so the moss doesn’t get all gungy.
They can be hung on pieces of string too and make a really useful addition to rooms with no display areas as they can be hung in awkward places. 

Types of plants
The displays benefit from indirect sunlight to keep the moss green so this will also guide you to the type of houseplant that will thrive in these conditions. Ferns, ivies and other shade plants will do well.

My watering techniques differ. The stand ones I immerse in water in a bowl or put under the tap with tepid water. The hanging ones I put a bowl of water up to them and let the water soak in for a few seconds. They are like sponges so it takes no time at all. 

They do dry out pretty quickly so ferns will need a drop of water every few days. Succulents on the other hand can go a week or two without water although it’s the moss you’ll need to keep moist so they will benefit from a mist spray of water quite often. I am finding that there are types of succulents that are a bit too delicate for the displays but you’ll soon get a feel for what plant is right for you  display, if they don’t get knocked about there’s no problem.

Water the kokedama when the plant base becomes dry and light. 

Gently squeeze your kokedama root base to get rid of excess water and lightly reshape after watering as they can drip for a while afterwards (my dogs think it’s always raining as I have one over their bed in the house)

All kokedama appreciate bright, indirect light as this keeps the moss green. If you don’t think they will be practical in the house you could try planting up violas, geraniums, bulbs, alpines, in fact any drought tolerant plant and hang them outdoors. It’ll give the kids something to hit with their tennis rackets.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Aquaponics, What's all that about then?

 Thanks to Milkwood for the pic

Seed catalogues are a welcome browse for the New Year. You can get online ones but there’s something more satisfying turning the glossy pages of your favourite seed companies. I do order online though after flicking through the pages and try to get the packets by at least march for planting in April.

Klaus Laitenberger from Milkwood farm always says that the most common garden activity is sowing seeds too early in the year. He and I think it’s far better to wait until the farmer warms his bottom on the soil (or so I’ve been told, I’d opt for a thermometer in the soil).  With the exception of a few vegetables the majority should only be sown/planted from April or May onwards.  Sowing too early often means poor or no germination (each crop has an optimal germination temperature), poor growth and more pests and diseases.

There are exceptions for early planted crops such as early potatoes (planted in mid-March), onion and shallot sets (planted from mid-March onwards), garlic (February to March at the latest), broad beans (February to early April) and Jerusalem artichokes (planted March).

Planting now
Try sowing the seeds of aubergine, beans, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, kale, leeks, onions if you really feel the urge to start early as these are pretty hardy.

If you fancy starting some flower seeds then choose for a wide range but remember again to keep them protected. Choose from: Achillea Antirrhinum Begonia- both seeds and tubers, cactus, cineraria, coleus, cyclamen, delphinium, geranium, lobelia, lupin, sweet peas, verbena and a host of other annual and perennial plants.

No Soil gardens
If the thought of tidying up the garden and getting mud through the house for spring is a daunting prospect, how about relaxing, staying clean and growing with just water?

Aquaponics is the up and coming way to grow vegetables and other plants in environments that are too harsh for regular growing. Aquaponics is essentially the combination of Aquaculture and Hydroponics and can be as small as a fishtank or as large as a farm. 

Aquaculture, also known as aquafarming, is the farming of fish, crustaceans, molluscs, aquatic plants, algae, and other aquatic organisms. 

Hydroponics is a subset of hydroculture, which is the growing of plants in a soil less medium, or an aquatic based environment. Hydroponic growing uses mineral nutrient solutions to feed the plants in water, without soil.

Both aquaculture and hydroponics have some down sides, hydroponics requires expensive nutrients to feed the plants, and also requires periodic flushing of the systems which can lead to waste disposal issues. Re-circulating aquaculture needs to have excess nutrients removed from the system; normally this means that a percentage of the water is removed, generally on a daily basis.
This nutrient rich water then needs to be disposed of and replaced with clean fresh water.
While re-circulating aquaculture and hydroponics are both very efficient methods of producing fish and vegetables, when these two techniques are connected, these negative aspects are turned into positives. 

How it works
It needs a container for the fish and one for the plans with a circulation pump. The plants extract the water and nutrients they need to grow from the water, cleaning the water for the fish. There are bacteria that live on the surface of the clay ball growbed media that holds the plant roots in place. These bacteria convert ammonia wastes from the fish into nitrates that can be used by the plants. The conversion of ammonia into nitrates is often termed “the nitrogen cycle”. The fish water can be filtered through a worm bin.

Sensitive ecosystem – The system relies on the relationship between the fish, bacteria, worms and plants to maintain healthy ecosystems for each of the species. Water is only added to replace losses from absorption into the organisms, transpiration by the plants and evaporation from the tanks. As a result the system is very water-efficient compared to conventional vegetable production and ideal for areas with little available water.

Local initiative
There is a system in place at the Playtrail in Pennyburn, Derry.  It’s a partnership between students from The Playtrail and Ardnashee School and College and the Nerve Centre’s FabLab. It’s funded by Comic Relief and almost 100 young people are involved in the region’s first social enterprise aquaponic digital farm.  The idea has gone from the initial concept, design to build and maintenance and is still being developed. Some lucky members are going on a fact finding mission to a larger set up in Bristol to find out more about the idea and how to improve the system.

Using state of the art digital fabrication equipment from the Nerve Centre’s FabLab, students are receiving hands-on training and experience in a range of digital design and making techniques, allowing them to design, build and operate an aquaponic farm for themselves. The initial system at the playtrail is already in place and supplying fresh herbs and salad plants to a cafe in the city.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


I have realised I have an annual pattern of making things in the winter. I didn’t realise until now, but every December when the cold and rain stop me from working in the soil, I turn my attentions to being creative indoors. 

A couple of years ago I made hypertufa pots out of cement and peat and last year I made hemp pots. Both of these ventures were enjoyable but ended by me cluttering up the garden with enough pots to start a business. This year I decided to turn my attention to making some supports for my ever growing collection of air plants.  As these plants have no roots as such, all that is needed is for something to hold them in place. 

As I have a bit of difficulty getting my hands on some bogwood I thought driftwood might be a simpler choice and is easier to work with as most of it isn’t petrified 5000 year old roots. Over a few weekends I scoured the shoreline and ended up with a garage load of wet, salty twigs and stems, some of which weren’t eaten by the dogs before the dried out. I did have a pile of wood on the fireplace for a while and it’s amazing what crawls out of the knot holes as they are drying. Mostly armoured woodlice, but there are a few things I haven’t seen before. Watching their bid for freedom gives me something to watch in my quieter moments.  To embellish the wood and give it a more natural, weathered look, I thought I would harvest a bit of lichen from the woods.  Lichen should be easier to work with then moss as that’s messy and more at home in a hanging basket.

I was amazed at the huge variety of colours and textures of this mysterious plant.

What are Lichens?
Lichens are a compound organism in which a fungus lives together in symbiosis with an alga and/or bacteria. Together each combination forms a stable union with both organisms benefiting from each other. The algal (and/or cyanobacterial cells) are protected from drying out by the enveloping fungi, which also provides attachment to the rock, wood, soil or other substrate. In return, the fungus receives nutrients from the alga, in the form of sugar made by photosynthesis.

It is estimated that nearly 8% of the earth’s land surface is covered by lichens. This enables them to make a significant ecological contribution by generating carbohydrates through photosynthesis which helps to reduce carbon dioxide levels and fixes nitrogen.

Ice Age History
Many lichen species appeared to have stayed in Ireland during its last Ice Age, particularly in areas where rock remained exposed to the air. As the Ice Age retreated (about 13,000 years ago) trees reappeared in Ireland bringing a rich lichen flora with them.

Today it is estimated that there are about 1200 lichen species on the island. This rich biodiversity is due mainly to the many distinct habitats (from rocky seashores to pockets of mixed woodland to mountain areas) here and the temperate damp climate.

West of Ireland woodlands and bogs are still the best places to see the remnants of species that must have been abundant here in ancient times. We can see loads of examples here in inishowen, especially in the older woodlands.

Old Growth Forest Indicators
Some lichens are poor dispersers and are slow to populate new habitats. Such species tend to stay and flourish in a single habitat such as a forest. These lichens are called old-growth forest indicators.
Lichens are part of an ecosystem’s primary producers and they are a source of food for many organisms from tiny invertebrates to large vertebrates. There is little doubt that in ancient Ireland the Elk would have fed on lichen species such as Reindeer moss (Cladonia species). Ireland does not have a high enough lichen biomass to support mammals today.

What uses lichen?
Apart from me in the displays, squirrels use lichens to line the inside of their nests. Birds use lichens to patch the outside of their nests to camouflage them as well as using them for food. Birds play an important part in dispersing lichen.  The reproductive bits of the lichen (soredia) are small and light enough to stick to bird’s feet and feathers so are carried to other trees and habitats. Moths and butterflies feed on lichens and use them for camouflage.

Many lichens, have a rich biodiversity of invertebrates associated with them. As lichens are good bio accumulators and part of an ecosystem’s food chain they can store and pass on nutrients efficiently.
It’s funny but the more I get to find out about this fascinating plant, the less inclined I am to want ot use it in decorations. It seems a bit of waste until I remind myself that if I put the lichen outside again, it’ll probably start growing again. It’s probably one of the hardiest plants you can get, as long as we have damp and clean air. Thankfully we have plenty here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Growing Nuts in the Garden

 Pics: A young cobnut orchard

Have you ever thought about growing a nut tree?
A lot of people have and for good reason, they can produce a huge crop for the winter months, be decorative and a haven for wildlife. Nut trees will be a great addition to any medium or large sized garden.

I was thinking that up here in Inishowen might be a bit harsh for nut growing but if we can find a sheltered spot there’s no reason we can’t grow a wide variety which can include cobnuts, walnuts, chestnuts, heartnuts, hickory, hican, ginkgo, pinenuts, Monkey Puzzle and almonds.

I thought some expert advice was needed here so I have been chatting to one of the country’s best known and knowledgeable growers, Andy Wilson from the Fruit and Nut specialist nursery in Westport. 

Andy can confirm that there is a lot of interest in nut growing and gets over 3000 enquiries a year from people asking about how to grow the trees and where to get them from.

Andy has a lot of knowledge as he has been growing trees since he was about 10 years old. Starting out with walnuts and cobnuts in Ireland in 1984, then in 2006 progressing to set up the Fruit and Nut nursery in Westport, which is Ireland's principal supplier of nut trees.

Growing Nut Trees

What type of nut trees grow in Ireland?
Lots of kinds, but the most common cultivated type is the cobnut (a cultivated version of the native
hazelnut)Other nut species include walnut, chestnut, heartnut, pinenut and Monkey Puzzle.

Which type would be best for small gardens/ large gardens?
Nothing is really suitable for small gardens but cobnuts are suitable for medium sized gardens. The other nut species grow into big trees and require lots of space.

What requirements do they need?
Shelter - essential (except for pinenut Pinus pinea, which is very wind tolerant)

Sunny position - essential (too much shade is just as bad as too little shelter)

Well drained deep soil - essential in all cases. Cobnuts are the most tolerant of wetter conditions but it's always better to try to improve drainage - even if it takes a year or two to accomplish - rather than to plant in wet ground.

Absence of late spring frosts - essential for walnuts, chestnuts and heartnuts and strongly advisable for all other nuts.

Andy also tells us : “People often think they can plant nut trees in a bit of waste ground but
actually they should really be thinking of their BEST land.”

Can you grow them from seeds?
Except for the pinenut and Monkey Puzzle, no. And it would be a long wait for the first nuts!

Can you grow them from cuttings, offshoots?
Cobnuts can be grown from sucker from other cobnuts. Walnuts and chestnuts are normally propagated by grafting.

How many should I plant?
The hazel, cob and filbert nuts are all similar, forming large bushes. A mixture of several varieties will do best, as this will help the pollination.

Do any grow really big?
Sweet chestnuts grow too big for most gardens and only crop after long summers, which could limit growing them in Inishowen a bit.  Walnuts are also huge trees and take years to crop so you could plant one for the next generation!

When is the best time to plant nut trees?

Barerooted nut trees can be planted from mid March to mid April. Normally a lot of gardeners feel it’s better to plant in the autumn but the trees are in leaf until November and very few suppliers will lift before leaf fall. By December the ground is usually wet and horrible (not this year so far!) and after that it's generally better to wait until things begin drying out and warming up in the spring.
However experienced gardeners will have their own preferences and may choose to plant before mid-March if the weather and ground conditions are good.

Container grown
Container-grown trees can be planted all year round but are generally best planted mid-March to early May.  The extra expense for container-grown trees is only really justified for pinenuts, Monkey Puzzle trees and the evergreen oaks (the latter produce an edible acorn). The other trees are best planted barerooted.

How long until we get nuts?
2-4 years with cobnuts but up to 50 with the Monkey Puzzle.

Do they make good wildlife habitats?
All nut trees support some wildlife, but cobnuts would be the best as from a wildlife perspective they're the same as the wild hazel.

Do they require a lot of pruning?
Cobnuts require regular pruning if they are to crop well. Most other nut trees require annual pruning for the first 4-8 years (until the tree develops a good shape), but not so much after that.

Andy’s  nursery offers a free, no-obligation email advice service  so if you wanted to get ready for growing nut trees next year contact him on office@fruitandnut.ie or via the website fruitandnut.ie

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