Michael Evans was born in 1913 and is 96 years old. For a number of years, he owned and ran Castle Donovan Nursery with his son Geraint, specializing in shrubs and trees. He still works everyday that he can in his garden at Dereenacrinig in Southern Ireland. The garden is two overgrown acres filled with magnolias, climbing roses, espaliered apples trees, grapes, and a wide variety of rare shrubs. Mike grows vegetables year round in a “poly-tunnel” to avoid the incessant Irish rain.
What is your first memory of gardening?
I was 7 or 8 years old. We had little square gardens outside the old kitchen garden against the wall. I shared the plot with Derek and Pug, my brother and sister. Looking back, I think it was too shady to grow much. I went to a prep school when I was about that age at Warren Hill in Eastbourne. It was a long way from home, all the way across England. I remember I had a little garden there too.
Why do you garden now?
Habit mostly. I watch every plant all the time. There is a Welsh Poppy that just came out in the conservatory and a narcissus just by the steps with three or four buds. I love to watch plants because there is always something different, something changing all the time. I am naturally interested in whatever is new. They may be slow, but plants are constantly on the move. I don’t garden just for the exercise: I get that by walking up the mountain each day with my dog.
What is your favorite part of gardening?
I love pruning – shaping the plants. My favorites are the espaliered apple trees and the vine. I have to do the vine soon or it will start to bleed if I leave it too late. I do like nurturing the plants, particularly hoeing but I cannot do much hand weeding now. Harvesting is OK. I like the sense of accomplishment but it is not a favorite, nor is planting seeds.
What do you hate about gardening?
Tidying up. I don’t like having to move stuff to the compost pile. That is the only thing I dislike.
What are you favorite types or varieties of plants?
I like trees more than any other plants but it is much too late for me to plant more now. I won’t live to see them grow to maturity. I love the magnolias. I have about seven trees and some are getting really big – over 30 feet high. When we had Castle Donovan Nursery, we sold Beech, Oak and Sweet Chestnut trees. We had lots left over and they were planted up at the top of the land with Thuja in between. When we take out the Thuja, we will have a little Oak and Chestnut wood up there. This land is called Derreenacrining, which means Oak Wood, so we are replacing what was here originally. I planted the ‘rock’ above the house with heath, heathers, dwarf conifers, rhododendrons, and azaleas many years back. It is getting very overgrown up there. I don’t have the time to look after it. Oh, I do love bulbs in the spring – the daffs and narcissi pushing up through the grass.
What are you really good at in the garden?
I am very good at pruning, particularly long term shaping of vines such as wisteria and laburnum so that the flowers hang well. I used to do a lot of propagating from cuttings but I haven’t done much of that for a few years. I had hundreds under plastic bags. Recently, a neighbor came round. He is building a new house and wants me to propagate his old vine. I use a mix or sand and peat moss and slip the cuttings down the sides of the pots. Mostly you cut just below the leaf node and leave the cutting no longer than 6″ so it does not lose moisture. Camellias will only root from a leaf cutting and different plants need to have their cuttings taken at different times.
What are you still learning?
I’m not doing many different things now. I don’t consult my gardening books, as my reading is so slow. But I am always looking to see the new growth – like the pansies just coming into flower in the hanging baskets. I sowed the seeds in the late summer. I plant a number of different varieties of vegetables now, like snow peas and sugar snaps. The seeds came over from the US and have only been available for the last 15 years in Ireland.
What is your overall gardening philosophy?
I have always had a garden whenever possible. Even during the War when I was in the Royal Air Force, I grew a garden wherever I was stationed. One time I managed to get a grape vine growing nicely before I was posted. My garden here has just grown up over the years. It’s naturally disorganized as I put plants wherever I can find space or feel like putting them. Some parts were more designed like the heather garden on the rock. That is quickly turning into a wilderness. I used to use chemicals but haven’t for years. I went totally organic and just use my own compost and Bountea.
What is your personal approach to gardening?
I plant my vegetable in rows and hoe between to keep the weeds down. The beds are Irish style, “lazy beds” – slightly raised. I don’t dig deep any more, just the top six inches. I use an old fork that is worn down to six inches and turn the compost in. That fork must be 55 years old. I compost everything – just turn all the kitchen waste into the chicken house. I use the chicken manure mixed with old rotted vegetable compost. I am more interested in the plants than the soil. I’m not mad about what’s going on below the surface.
What do you gain from gardening?
I just enjoy it. Gardening does keep me fit at this age, keeps me on my feet with always something to do. Then there is the aesthetic pleasure of looking at the plants every day – watching the trees grow. I have always been a gardener.