The Monk's Garden
From March - June 2021, David Begley facilitated The Monk's Garden, an art, heritage and gardening project at St Edan's National School, Ferns, County Wexford. David and the children grew fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers and used these as source for drawing and painting. Inspired by the medieval monk, St Aidan of Ferns, many of the plants chosen for the garden would have grown in medieval monastic gardens.
The garden prompted lessons on soil, germination, companion planting, the importance of water, erosion, wildlife habitats, uses of sheep's wool, composting, archaeological excavation, monastic life, St Aidan, The Normans, and creativity. The children wove a wattle fence, made oak gall ink and drew with reed pens and turkey feather quills, gathered water from the river Bann to feed the garden, and used homemade charcoal to draw a portrait of the school secretary. As the project developed they came to know the names and uses of plants.
David wrote an account of his work in the garden. See extracts below.
This project is part of David Begley's Ancient Connections Artist Residency in Ferns, commissioned by Wexford County Council.
Some months before our baby girl was born, Leo aged three and a half, announced his sister’s name would be Lana of the Day. In time he divulged ‘of the day’ meant, ‘The best.’
Lana she became. She is ten weeks old now, a smiling laughing cooing cherub. My mother rang to tell me she found her name on a clothing label. Lana en Español, via latin, is wool. Leo wasn’t to know. Neither did we.
Before I became a dad I had not heard of Lanolin. Had never purchased breast pads nor nipple cream. Lanolin, also known as sheep’s grease or wool wax, is secreted via the sebaceous glands in woolly animals. It’s used in nipple cream – a vital salve for sore, cracked, or bleeding nipples sometimes caused by breast feeding.
Six weeks after becoming a parent for the first time, on the day of my brother’s wedding in 2016, I looked into the mirror and discovered a tired and dishevelled face. My eyebrows reached in several directions and my hair frizzled as though I had forked a toaster. Surrounded by an army of groomsmen combing, waxing, and ironing themselves, I realised I had nothing to prune with. I reached into my suit pocket. Nipple cream makes a wonderful hair wax. It can tame the most feral of eyebrows. It smells quite nice too.
Why all this talk of wool wax?
In preparation for putting the monk’s garden to sleep for the winter, I had researched the benefits of sheep’s wool. Sculptor and horticulturist Imogen Stafford recommended its use to retain moisture in times of summer drought. Wool pellets can be used to ward off slugs – the fibres in the wool makes them shudder. As a dense covering, wool helps prevents weeds. Imagine my delight in finding a parent had left twenty fleeces at the school, and standing by, Anthony and young Charlie ready to help cover the ground.
A light frost released the dew. Our breath billowed. Charlie pulled the first fleece out of the bag. He held it up, big as a bear.
‘That’s one fleece?’ I enquired.
Charlie knows about wool. He informed me that when shearing a sheep, the wool wax is ‘sticky’ and ‘a ram has more after being on the ewes.’
I admit I dreaded this encounter with sheep’s fleeces. I had been warned of the smell and the potential cling-ons but this wool had been left in a shed some fifteen years. It was dry and tick free. When laid over the Hügelkultur end of the garden, it had the appearance of almond icing on a Christmas cake. I put a nose to it. The fleece smelled faintly of old man’s jumper. When I kneeled upon it, as a monk might, it was spongy and welcoming. One could imagine lying on it. I nearly did. Charlie and Anthony looked at me sideways. I gathered myself. Took photographs. Poked about in the manure beneath.
By way of experiment, we covered one side of the plot in grey builder’s plastic. This will prevent weeds and should heat the soil, ready for spring sowing. I was concerned our manure might be too dense to plant in. Charlie smiled and assured me that over the coming months the heat of the plastic and wool will ‘Melt the manure like chocolate.’
Come the spring we'll see.
– David Begley 08 December 2020
Week 1: The Circle Exercise
On Friday I entered a classroom for the first time in almost a year. An art teacher rarely travels light. Punto was piled high. On the passenger seat my sprong kept lengths of willow from rolling on top of me. In the boot compost and pots, seeds, wellies, spuds, bones, books, ink, charcoal, paper, carved spoons, and a face mask.
I laid out these wares on a decorator’s table beside the woolly plot ready for the juniors, and with my mask on stepped inside the school. In the classroom we looked at a whiteboard presentation on the history of charcoal. The children looked at me curiously. A girl sneezed. Young eyes glazed over. Next a germination diagram.
‘Where do seeds come from?’ I asked.
A hand crept up.
‘From a shop.’
We went out to the garden. I took them to my table and introduced them to what we will be doing over the coming months. I showed them a dried sunflower head and in it, seeds. I plucked some out. A dolphin’s vertebrae took their interest. We put our hands behind our backs and found our spines. They began to fidget. I lifted my jar of oak gall ink. They leaned in to see. We walked to the school oak tree with two oak galls balancing in a tea spoon and they giggled and shrieked. Lovely now to hear their excitement. Beneath the oak tree, each child found a fallen gall. Soon these will be crushed and transformed into medieval ink, I revealed.
It was getting cold. We took ourselves inside to draw.
Before the pandemic, I would have left open a tin of charcoal for the children to help themselves. Now everything must be separate. Everything and everyone must be cleansed. How quickly children adapt. Faces to paper, they took their burnt sticks and began to scrawl. I asked them to draw circles. They did this with ease and each child in their own way. I ask that they keep drawing circles.
Junior pupil mark making
Scrawling repeated circles allows first timers to come to know their charcoal. How it crumbles and snaps and smudges, how when held lightly it makes delicate marks, or when pushed with a fist, makes thick bold black. Fingers and noses blackened. Patterns emerged. Each approached the task in their own way. The results were varied and abstract.
I asked them to close their eyes. They drew beautifully. With grace and hunger and sureness. Many of the children drew perfect freehand circles. Through this freedom of mark making children’s ways of making, learning and thinking are revealed and they begin to learn from each other. It’s wonderful to witness this process unfolding.
By the end of the activity they have learned that erasers are used to make light. Between black and white, lies grey in many tones. Dragging your fingers through char makes waves. Fingerprints make lovely marks.
With our hands dirty we returned to the garden and tested onion sets for firmness. We pushed them root down, point up, into toilet rolls packed with compost. We gave them water and left them inside on a sunny window sill. Two girls volunteered to mind them for the week.
– David Begley March 10 2021
Rhubarb planted at the monk's garden. The rhubarb crown is on the inside of the Hügelkultur bed. It should spread in height and width and give us beautiful leaves to draw and fruit to eat. Before planting, I added ash and well rotted manure, topped with soil and a wool mulch.
The children drew seed potatoes in home baked charcoal. They learned about soil, sifted and mixed a secret super soil for potatoes, and they sowed radish, calendula, coriander, lettuce, spinach, cornflower, cosmos and first early potatoes.
15 March 2021
Seed potato drawing by a junior pupil
The Monk's Garden at St Edan's National School, Ferns, County Wexford, March 2021
Week 3: Making compost and sowing onions
I first learned of ‘Visual Thinking Strategies’ as a teacher’s aid from a presentation given by art historian Karla Sanchez O’Connell in 2016. To begin, you show an image and ask ‘What’s going on in this picture?’ Now, wait for your audience to respond. Let them discover, let them unpick. As they unravel the image they begin to notice and articulate its details for themselves. As this process evolves, the facilitator feeds terms into the conversation – background, texture, composition, and so, over a period of weeks and months by allowing and encouraging children to discuss pictures, they develop an appreciation of art, language to describe it and the tools, curiosity and confidence to decipher it. Soon they use these tools to create and talk about their own artworks.
Last Friday, to discuss the history of ploughing with The Junior Room (junior infants - second class) I projected a photograph of Ed Morrison’s field at The Harrow, Ferns, and asked, ‘What’s going on in this picture?’
Two boys nearly jumped out of their seats with excitement. We heard how the field had been sown with barley.
‘How can you tell?’
‘The rows are close together.’
I was amazed. It is indeed a barley field.
A girl looked at the rust coloured trees in the background and determined the photo was taken in autumn. We also learned that a picture of land is called a ‘landscape’.
Morrison's field, Ferns, September 2020
To finish, we looked at Millet’s ‘Gleaners’. From this painting we discovered ‘background’ and ‘foreground’ and went outside and drew imaginary landscapes with humpy mountains and volcanoes chuffing plumes over bushy trees and fences. Young heads quiet for a moment in char, then babbling, bubbling, and soon everyone was finished.
‘What do I do now?’
‘How about a bird?’
‘Are you finished?’
We moved to the demonstration table.
I opened a tub of crushed egg shells.
‘But I washed them.’
Now, kitchen scraps, sticks, cardboard, my squashed banana lunch.
‘Stand back everyone.’
I opened the wood-ash pot. Poof. I poured it into the compost bucket. Mixed it with my hand and now reached behind me and grabbed fresh seaweed.
I mixed it in. They squawked in horror. I lifted a clump of sticky dung from the garden and they watched as I tore it up with my fingers.
Not a sound.
Our compost complete, we learned how to re-grow scallions and celery from scraps. This done, we inspected our toilet-roll onions from week one. Each had sprouted shoots and so the children planted them in the garden. A wonderful sight – this clutch of youngster gardeners with trowels and dirty hands set free to plant and trample. A sign of good things to come.
– David Begley, 23 March 2021
Garlic in The Monk's Garden
Excavation at the monk's garden, 23 March 2021
Week 3: Excavation
Senior room pupils carried out an excavation. Finds were unearthed from millions of years ago to the present day including quartz, flint, coal, bones, coins, pottery shards, charcoal, plastic and a mobile phone.
Planting strawberries © David Begley
Week 4: Strawberries and a medieval wattle fence
Another fun packed Friday morning. This week we planted strawberries, the seniors wove a wattle fence and made birds nests, the juniors sowed wild flower seed for the bees, transplanted scallions and onions and made an 'iron water' concoction for oak gall ink.
Our rhubarb, garlic and blackcurrant bush are growing well. Many thanks to caretaker Anthony Earle for his help in preparing the Hügelkultur bed and to Kilcannon Garden Centre for the gift of our strawberry plants.
March 27 2021
Weaving the wattle fence at The Monk's Garden © David Begley, March
Bunny honey and reed pens
Yesterday eve at home in Blackwater, having gathered shells to make a path mulch at St Edan’s and seaweed for compost, we made our way into a neighbour’s field. The herd are in another pasture, the field hasn’t been sprayed in a time and so we went with bucket and spades in search of bunny honey. On the brow of the hill there are numerous bald patches. Upon these, mid munch, rabbits drop their pellets. With tiny spades on hands and knees, we gathered.
Rabbit dung is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. It has less uric acid and ammonia than cow and horse manure, it doesn’t need to be composted (but makes magic compost), improves drainage, increases moisture retention and improves soil structure. I haven’t put my nose to it, but it appears to have no smell.
This morning the senior class will learn how to make compost. We’ll add browns and greens in equal measure. I'll make use of the remnants of oak galls left steeping for the Junior room’s ink and add some of our sheep’s wool too.
With the need to find alternatives to peat compost and the cost of shearing versus the price of wool, farmers in Wales and in Ireland are converting wool and daggings into compost. I continue to be in awe of the possibilities of sheep’s wool in the garden and on the land. Not only is wool being used as a manure in Germany, it is also being used as an erosion defence. Mixed with soil, it binds and retains moisture. In the garden, laid on a cardboard base it makes a successful and attractive mulch. Irish farmers are processing wool into slug repellant pellets. As a fleece it has saved our spuds from the worst of the current frosts in Blackwater, fingers crossed it will do the same in Ferns.
April 16 2021
Oak galls at St Edan's used to make ink
Week 5: St Aidan and oak gall ink drawings
This week The Junior Room drew sea monsters inspired by the story of St Aidan and the poisoned bread. In the story, Aidan's disciple Scuithín is carried over the Irish sea by a sea beast to warn his friend St David of trouble ahead.
The drawings were made in traditional reed pen and oak gall ink. The ink was made from oak galls gathered from the school’s oak tree in September 2020.
We have used gum arabic as a binder for the ink and salt, vinegar and clove to preserve.
Iron water can be used to transform dark brown ink to black (iron oak gall ink).
April 18 2021
Our first flower is a strawberry blossom. The children's cornflower seedlings are now planted along with their radish and spinach. Blackcurrant, spuds, rhubarb, fennel all doing well. The juniors planted nasturtiums around our new blackboard on Friday. More seeds to be sown and herbs for planting this week.
April 19 2021
Charcoal drawing from observation by a senior pupil
Week 5: Drawing trees
The seniors drew trees in the school grounds from observation using charcoal attached to the ends of two foot lengths of alder.
April 20 2021
Senior pupils drawing trees from life
Week 6: Senior portraits in charcoal
This week the seniors (age 9 -12) drew a portrait from life. The workshop began with a presentation of portraits by Da Vinci, Van Gogh, a self portrait by Frida Kahlo, and a self portrait by contemporary Irish artist Colin Davidson.
We learned what the term 'contemporary' means in relation to a living artist and events of today, and so the children were asked to vote if their sitter would wear her mask. Fiona the secretary of St Edan's sat beneath a tree in the glorious afternoon light and the children drew. Congratulations to everyone for their brilliant work.
April 25 2021
Week 6: The Lopscorpyter and other creatures
A swathe of colour wraps the bend before The Harrow. Mount Leinster is mother blue in the distance. The ditch is enflamed. Tulips with red and purple tongues lap on yellow gorse. Lambs bounce in brown and black and white. Cows play piggy back, wide eyed behind the hedge, and later their elders cross the road at Boolavogue, udders bloated pink.
I am bleary after three hours sleep. Our little ones took it in turns to waken us in the night. Punto and I roll over the bridge and climb to Clone. I have a plan. I’ve scrutinised it in the early hours. Anticipated the pitfalls. Typed and sent it for approval to Teacher. There will be colour charts. Careful mixing.
We begin with pictures on the board. Pages from illuminated manuscripts. Ladies in peculiar head dress. A goat skin stretched on a frame as a medieval scrapes the animal's skin bald to make parchment. We learn how colours were found and ground: oak gall black, poisonous yellow, beetles for crimson.
The lopscorpyter by a junior pupil in The Monk's Garden, oak gall ink blot, April 2021.
After, the juniors trot out onto the lawn. I empty a rucksack of shells for them to solve. Clams from mussels and oysters. We are looking for deep bowls – shiny insides make for waterproof palettes.
‘Six each, everyone.’
The children squeal and all of a sudden fall silent, absorbed.
‘A keel worm.’
The shell is dropped.
What was intended as a fun starter has become the main course. Forget all that medieval stuff. Let’s clatter amongst shells and count them into piles.
‘Now everyone, please rinse your shells.’
They fall upon the water basins, and reassemble.
Reed pens for all. Black ink sloshed into shells.
It spills, it leaks, it slides and stains.
We fold our paper in two. Ink drops from our shells into paper centres. We squish both sides together and open up the paper to find a creature inside. The children begin to poke at them with reed pens. They huddle and puddle and master the art: an explosion of insects, a bestiary in black. They give their creatures eyes and teeth and legs and feet.
‘My goodness. What’s that?’
Suddenly we have only ten minutes remaining.
After, we sow pumpkins. Next week we have lots more to do. Learning how scallops and sheep’s wool might save our Monk’s Garden from erosion. There are more herbs to plant and a spot of careful, very careful, colour mixing too.
– David Begley, 25 April 2021
Horticulturist and sculptor Imogen Stafford kindly visited the garden in April, advised on companion planting and transplanted salads and spinach.
Week 7: Lamb’s ear and scallop shells
Ink painting outdoors calls for dry conditions. A farmer knows to spread slurry before the rain. The stench at Boolavogue was ominous. Giant clouds cast Mount Leinster in sloe. I arrived at the garden to find the water butt full for the first time in weeks. The ground was soaked. The strawberries were healthy, spuds and lettuce flourishing, herbs established, and our first radishes ready for harvesting.
Following the recent dry spell, this week the Junior Room learned about watering and erosion. We soaked seedlings before transplanting and gave a strawberry a drink from the ground up. To explain erosion I made a mound of earth. We sloshed water over it, the mound collapsed and soil washed aside. To protect our raised beds, the youngest gathered fleece to line the wattle fence and 2nd class edged borders with scallops. After sowing sunflowers seeds, we learned about lamb’s ear. A child was invited to close his eyes, and holding a leaf, described how it felt to the rest of the class. ‘Soft . . . like a rabbit.’
With that, a rook took a wisp of wool from our erosion defence and made off with it, proof for the children that the garden is supporting habitats.
The juniors made a scallop border to protect the soil from erosion
After, we took to the lawn for ink colour-mixing. Seven stripes of clean colour and brush-washing between each. Primaries first, followed by violets and burnt oranges, greens speckled with the first of the afternoon’s rain and pink pools running into the lawn, peacock blue sluiced over wool . . . next week, time to plant Borletti beans!
Radish, spinach and salads ready for harvest in May
Senior pupil grinding oak galls
In the classroom we measure our catch: 34 litres of river water.
I begin to prepare oak gall ink. The pestle and mortar is popular.
They are full of questions. We discuss the additional ingredients: salt, vinegar, clove, and sap.
A boy recognises my blob of resin. He has seen it on pine trees.
They are mesmerised by the transformation from gall to ink. I tell them of illuminated manuscripts and we pass the reed pens. They practice writing their names. Dip, land, scratch. Thin reed reservoirs empty quickly. Dip, drop, scrawl. Faces pressed to paper. The reeds are brittle. When asked to draw insects, they resort to cartoon.
Next week, should the sun allow we’ll take our ink outside and draw. The rhubarb and lamb’s ear will be ready. The lettuce sprightly and crinkled. If the children are quiet and quick, they might sketch one of our blackbirds or robins at feed.
The view from Doran's bridge, Ferns, County Wexford, before the junior workshop at the River Bann.
Week 8: Silence at the River Bann
Yesterday morning together with two parents, a grandparent, Ms Rourk and Adrienne the SNA, the juniors walked to the river Bann. As we arrived, I asked the children to imagine the riverbank a thousand years ago: no cars, no noise, no concrete road, no large house opposite, no electricity, no water on tap. The riverbank was an important place to come draw water for cooking, cleaning and drinking.
The children nodded.
We began by looking at weeds. The children were asked which weed is named after lion’s teeth (dent de lion). We discovered dandelions are edible. The children were bursting with experience:
‘Bees like them.’
‘My rabbit eats them like chocolate.’
‘Killer rabbits eat them too!’
‘You have a killer rabbit?’
‘Oh. I mean, wild rabbits.’
I picked a dock leaf. The children knew its name and how to rub it on stings. Beside us, a blackthorn in flower led to talk of sloe syrup, and how the fruit are high in tannin and can make purple ink which turns black when rust is added. I spoke of the ground beneath the ‘Sceach’ being ruled by fairies. The children eyed me with suspicion.
We moved to fauna.
‘What animals live here?’
A stream of answers, everything from hedgehog to heron. We learned that otter in Irish and in Welsh translate literally as water dog: Madra uiscue / Dwrgi. We saw reeds growing in the river beneath Doran’s bridge, the same reeds we used last week to make pens and draw with. The children seem impressed with the Crowfoot flowers. I pluck white quartz from the riverbed. A boy explains why its edges are rounded.
Gathering water at the River Bann, Ferns
The youngest has heard enough.
‘When can we get the water?’
I dip and fill a bucket and jug. The children fill their bottles.
‘One last thing before we go.’
I tell them we will listen. I have a field microphone and am going to record what we can hear.
I ask them to lie down and look at the clouds.
‘What shapes can you see?’
Now remembering what they saw, they close their eyes, and I ask them to breathe. For a minute, a whole minute, they fall silent and around them insects buzz and birds chatter and the river babbles and no cars drive past.
‘I saw a dog but when I opened my eyes it was gone.’
It might have been a thousand years ago.
– David Begley May 8 2021
Fennel, calendula, borage, salads and spuds in May
Week 8: Goal posts and turkey quills
This week’s senior workshop began with the importance of hedgerows as habitat, for erosion defence, herd management, and food. We learned how The Normans used hedging in Ireland and how they brought rabbits here for food and how they also ate blackbirds.
Looking at native trees, we learned that birds eat holly berries and the berries make ink. Birdlime is a glue made from boiled holly bark spread on branches by trappers to catch birds. We discussed how this features in Roald Dahl’s ‘The Twits’ and although the practice is illegal, it’s still used to catch and eat song thrushes in Valencia, Spain.
‘I wouldn’t like to climb trees in that place,’ comments a sixth class boy. He also tells us that in the absence of the hunt - ‘due to the virus’ there are more foxes about and one of them took four of his ducks.
Quill cut from a turkey feather
The children are not fond of furze (gorse). They groan at a picture of it. I tell them of its uses including syrup and ink making. We discuss uses of hawthorn and blackthorn and why farmers are being asked to keep a thorn bush every 300 metres in their hedgerow.
I showed images of squeezing berries to make inks from materials gathered in Ed Morrison’s hedgerow before looking at medieval illuminated manuscripts and bestiaries. We spill out into the garden and while I demonstrate how to cut a quill from a turkey feather, we discover how The Norman made arrows from native ash using feathers for fletches. They are still interested, but at last, it’s time to draw.
The pupils choose a subject from the garden or surrounding playing field to draw with quill and oak gall ink. Sprongs, goal posts, calendula, spuds, trees. Off they go, sitting, sprawling, chatting in the afternoon sun, quills busy on paper. A boy finishes early and wants to grind oak galls with a pestle and mortar. He does a fantastic job.
Senior pupil drawing in the garden with a quill
After drawing, the children line up, beaming. I push an iron into the ground, tied to a stick. It makes an earthy compass. I scratch a circle. It lines up with a stone tied to the wattle fence. I have marked it PHI and ø.
'Why there?' asks a sixth class boy.
In our next session we'll discover why our Monk's Garden measures 5 x 8.1 metres.
May 09 2021
Bean obelisk built and woven by senior pupils, May 2021
Borage and bee in the monk's garden
The Monk's Garden is part of David Begley's Ancient Connections Artist Residency in Ferns, County Wexford, commissioned by Wexford County Council.
Early on Friday the 13th of November I arrived at St Edan's to find the caretaker, Anthony, raking leaves. A gentle and kindly presence, he keeps the grounds meticulously. Together we measured a rectangle on the school lawn, 5 x 8.1 metres in the golden ratio. We raided the school grass heap, found a rich black mulch and wheeled the lot onto the monk’s rectangle.
As one side of the plot is perched on a slope, we laid a Hügelkultur mound to retain moisture. I made a wiggling cardboard path, it looked rather pretty. The Monk’s Garden had begun.
13 November 2020
With the backseat flat to accommodate a wheelbarrow, rake and sprong, I returned a week later to St Edan’s. Rain lashed at Punto and the wipers beat double time. I thought to turn back. The rooks of Boolavogue hid under a bush. The sunroof sprung a leak. In Bolger’s Hardware, I paused to channel my inner monk and came out to find the rain had ceased. Punto and I trotted uphill to Clone and arrived to find Anthony had gathered leaf mounds upon the mulch. He smiled, raised a slow arm out from his wet gear, and pointed.
I had enquired might any schoolchild’s farming parent have some dung. I said nothing about well-rotted or how much. I looked to my right. There beneath a tree on the edge of the basketball court was a colossal dung heap. Six tons of it, apparently. Clumpy and speckled with oats and straw. Sticky heavy smelly with the finest of worms throughout. A monk's delight. I parked my barrow, glanced up the slope to the garden and heaved.
To our good fortune, the school secretary’s son, Charlie, volunteered to help. The boy has a startling knowledge of horticulture. As his wisdom revealed itself, the pupil became our teacher. There’s more to muck than meets the snout – pile it too high and the sun’s heat won't reach the soil beneath.
With the light failing and my everything smeared in dung, I turned the barrow over and scrubbed. Charlie dowsed the tire. He spun the wheel. Poo sprayed the air. We did our best, but a tire has grooves. . . It was getting dark. I shunted the barrow into the car, tucked the tire between the passenger and driver’s seat, wiped my hands, and pointed home for Blackwater.
20 November 2020