Tilth and Loam



I wish I were Camilla Parker Bowles. She is really lucky, because she can have as much Highgrove Biodegradable Garden Twine as she likes……and I don’t know about her (spoiled hussy) but I like Highgrove Biodegradable Garden Twine A LOT.


My sister (the elder) visited Highgrove  last year  and brought me back this tangle free, no. 3 thickness wonder…..in fact she must have bought bales of the stuff, because she later gave me another skein, but I said nothing, because I was so delighted to get more of the fleur de lis emblazoned fully compostable delight of the clematis tepees.


From April 4 to 9last – or something – we were in Cannes.   The boys (husband P, mentor, and a young friend, a technology whizz) were working the Bunker (the marketplace of the Palais,) I was unfolding my little velo pliable in the hotel and merrily cycling down the hill to the town and the sea. At night we would meet up, the boys and I, and having made prior representations on my behalf, we would saunter the Croisette to the parties on the beach and in the gilded, marble pillared rooms or modern terraces of posh hotels. They talked communications – and more importantly connectivity – entertainment, television and technology, I drank champagne and ate doonshie amuse-bouche in tiny transparent cups, scoffed macaroons in a million colours, picked at chocolate coated strawberries and chatted up Ukranians. I wore high heels, make-up, silk or Issey Miyake’s polyester pleats.  Then we came home and I gratefully put way the gloop, the folds and drapes and pleats and instantly reverted to my alter ego – Johnboy Walton. Hurrah for battered straw, bare feet and denim dungarees ! I am back in my métier; the garden.


I have long considered hell as a force 8 gale when travelling steerage for all eternity, not across the Styx, but back and forth across the Irish Sea on the S.S. Innisfallen III (1948-69) with Alain Stivel playing over the Tannoy, spiders and motorcycles. I now add to this my assigned labour: not scrubbing nor tarring the decks, but digging out mares’ tales and bindweed.


I love trees, but I hate bindweed.  Since coming here a decade ago, I have been plagued with a garden full of silently creeping roots, but have been heartened by stealing from ditches (mea culpa, mea culpa) and receiving with alacrity and gratefully nurturing the gifts of birds; little seedlings in purple droppings and the forgotten fruits of winter hoards, nuts nestled in bark mulch.  As a result, my 1,700m2 garden is an obstacle course – nay a maze- of cherry, hazel, walnut and beech, laurel bay and lilac, oak, willow the ubiquitous ash – not to mention apple, pear, reine claude and mirabelles, white peach and fig.


The nuts and seedlings, shoots and saplings all grew merrily, but in the past few years, as they shot upwards, we began to notice that we could no longer see the mountains and soon the very sky, the sun itself would be obscured.  With a heavy heart, this year I lifted a three metre high Mayflower which had originally been the droppings of an accommodating Cork bird, and came over to France with us as a stripling. It was guarding the raspberries with such jealous loyalty that the latter ran amok as I couldn’t get near them through the tangle of the old brown thorn tree. So we broke it in two (and threw the branches in the dump for all that Maeve could say.)  We can’t even compost it because of the length and strength of its thorns. I would love to have used it in a gap in the hedge against marauding cats, but something’s gotta give. Anybody want any of five healthy 5-10 year old walnut trees, reared with tough love to be straight and tall and strong?  I have been kinda keeping them for my neurosurgeon friend Charlie Marks in celebration of his trade, as each individual walnut is scarily representative of the human brain, but each time he travels to the Alps, he only brings climbing boots in a backpack, so couldn’t transport trees home….and I durst not ask Michael O’Leary.  We cut down an apple tree but I couldn’t bear to lose it, so we replanted it (sans roots) outside the dining room window and it now serves as a rather salubrious, multi-storey bird feeder, known as “Charlie Bird’s diner” (a different Charles – there are a lot of them about; ask Camilla Of The Twine.)


This reference, reader, begs explanation. There is a broadcast journalist who by virtue of his something-or-other-which-I-never-quite-understood, is a household name in Ireland. So anyway, Charlie Bird went to Washington, the plum job, but when he got there, nobody knew him, nobody wanted to know – or even more importantly, to tell – so he made a television programme about how sad and lonely he was, packed up and came home to Ireland. But because our feeder is multi-storey, no bird would EVER be sad and lonely, there, so hence the title)…..phew, that was longwinded…….


If hell be mare’s tails and bindweed, surely heaven is downy birch, crack and hoary willow, osier, fluttering elm, cornelian cherry, balsam poplar, Phoenician juniper, hemlock, stone pine, elder and alder, balm of Gilead, snowy mespil, medlar…….and if not heaven, then at least a poem. A poem incorporating the works of Pacha Mama, Mother Nature and J.C. For poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.


Isabel Healy

Isabel Healy

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