ON WEDNESDAY, 30 August, we celebrate the feast day of St Fiacre, patron saint of gardeners. Typically, for a saint of the Dark Ages, it is hard to separate the facts of his life from the legends he inspired.
He is reputed to be the illegitimate son of a Scottish king, born in Ireland, and raised by the monks of Kilferagh monastery in County Kilkenny. He left Ireland in 628, possibly filled with missionary zeal, or merely seeking escape from demands for healing and herbal remedies for which he had earned a reputation. He arrived at Meaux, on the river Marne, east of Paris, where the Bishop St Faro had founded the Monastery of Saint Croix.
Fiacre approached the bishop to ask for land for a garden, and the bishop granted him as much land as he could enclose by digging a ditch in one day. The next morning, Fiacre, starting at his forest clearing, marked out far and wide the piece of land he wanted, by dragging his spade behind him. Where the spade touched, trees toppled, bushes were grubbed out, and the soil was turned over.
Most gardeners face the task of clearing an overgrown area from time to time. Without the sort of miracle that gave our patron saint a head start, it is undoubtedly hard work. It is worth setting about it in a methodical manner, using the right technique without resorting to a chemical weed-killer such as glyphosate, which, while effective, raises environmental concerns.
A long-neglected garden will present as a jungle of vegetation, which may include tree suckers and seedlings and overgrown shrubs. Work on a defined, manageable area at a time. Remove stumps of saplings by excavating some soil round them and severing their roots with a mattock until they can be pulled out.
Find a knowledgeable gardener to identify the shrubs, if you are not sure, as most will respond well to a severe prune (albeit possibly at the cost of one year’s flowers) and may be worth saving. Equally, there may be a few herbaceous treasures that are worth digging and potting up for future use. Cut down the remaining mixture of weeds and plants with shears or a hefty lawn mower.
You can then layer on the area newspaper at least eight sheets deep or cardboard from boxes, with staples and plastic tape removed. Dampen and cover with organic matter such as straw, grass cuttings, autumn leaves, compost, or leafmould. Leave the mulch for three to six months before forking over and planting.
If garden-making is far from your mind and, instead, you are off on holiday, there are a couple of gardens connected with St Fiacre that are well worth the visit. One is in his country of birth.
The Irish National Stud is a garden of rock and water that celebrates the raw landscapes of Ireland and early monasticism. The other is Château de Valmer, a Royal Horticultural Society partner garden, near Vouvray, in France. Going back a few years, it held an annual festival in the saint’s honour. The gardens are a horticultural wonder, that boast eight spectacular terraces, a rare troglodytic chapel with a 15th-century altar, and a statue of St Fiacre.