© David Begley 2021
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 sources 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, use 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, 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 below.
This webpage is best viewed on a monitor.
This project is part of David Begley's Ancient Connections Artist Residency in Ferns, commissioned by Wexford County Council.
Early on Friday the 13th of November 2020 I arrived at St Edan's to find the caretaker, Anthony Earle, 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 – 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. I paused to purchase gloves in Bolger’s Hardware and came out to find the rain had ceased. Punto and I trotted uphill to Clone 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 and heavy 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 clothes 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
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.
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 to subdue weeds. Imagine my delight in finding a parent had left twenty fleeces at the school and Anthony and young Charlie were 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, the daggings, the ticks but this wool had been left in a shed some fifteen years. It was dry and flea 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. Finger wrestled a worm. It won.
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. The plastic will be useful during our art workshops, too.
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
Before the pandemic, I would have left open a tin of charcoal for 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, each child in their own way. I asked them to continue drawing circles.
On Friday 10th of March 2021 I entered a classroom for the first time in almost a year. An art teacher rarely travels light, now I was a gardener too. 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 and ink, charcoal, paper, carved spoons, and a face mask.
I laid out these wares on a decorator’s table beside the 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 decorator’s 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. They giggled and shrieked – lovely 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 so we took ourselves inside to draw.
Scrawling repeated circles allows first-timers to come to know their charcoal: how it crumbles, how it snaps and smudges, how if held lightly it makes delicate marks or when thrust 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 learning and thinking are revealed. I ask them to hold their drawings aloft. 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 draw light. Between black and white, grey lies 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. In a week hopefully we'll plant our spuds.
– David Begley March 10 2021
Junior pupil's mark-making
Juniors sowing onion sets
Lessons from the ground
As the project progressed I continued to learn lessons from the ground. I needed to think on my feet. Challenges became opportunities. Discovering that the soil beneath the dung was predominantly shale was lesson number one: always look before you leap.
Three months had passed since we first laid fleece. I lifted a corner and peered beneath. Some dozen enormous worms wriggled in the sun. Let us be, they said in unison. I checked under the grey plastic, not so many. Had the dung melted as chocolate? It had not. It had congealed and thickened into a thick dark goo. I removed the plastic to let the manure breath. No matter, whispered a monk in the breeze, all in good time: seeds will be sown indoors and later transplanted, and by then the manure will be dry, crumbly and rich.
I turned the muck to see if the lawn beneath had died – by laying a thick mulch in December I intended to use a no-dig approach – the grass was stifled and yellowed not quite gone. Early days.
As for my no-dig, to sow potatoes I needed to make drills. To test the tilth I pounced my spade through the turf. The first thing I hit was stone. I moved to the right and attempted to dig, only to find more stone. On it went. The Normans would have scoffed, fine tillers that they were. A monk might have welcomed the toil.
I dug as much as I could – a length of drill, half-a-hand deep, and gave up – what we needed for potatoes was a fine sandy soil. So began a curious swop: I filled bags with sticky manure and took them home. In return, I came back to St. Edan’s with bags of Blackwater earth, well rotted horse manure, a bucket of sand, and sieves and basins all round.
Week 2: Super Spud Soil
Juniors pupil sifting sand and soil
This week we began with charcoal drawing. The Juniors (ages 5 - 8) further developed their mark-making skills and using a wipeout technique, drew seed potatoes from observation and imagined them in the dark of underground. Wonderful to see them enjoy this versatile medium.
After drawing we went out to the garden and learned about soil. Sharing a large bowl of earth, the children cleared it of stones and weed roots, then crumbled it ready for seed potatoes. With a sieve they added Blackwater sand. The children poured their mixed sandy soil over horse manure in potato trenches and planted their first early seed potatoes.
As well as spuds, the children sowed lettuce, radish, calendula, coriander, spinach, cornflower and cosmos in recycled packaging and used lolly pop sticks to label. Last week’s onion sets have begun to sprout.
To sow, plant, grow and tend to a garden measuring 5 x 8.1 metres I needed more than a one hour workshop per week. Manure needed turning to air it and a wattle fence wouldn’t weave itself. I stayed after school and turned the dung then returned home and plundered our neighbouring swamp for alder poles. On Saturday I began to weave the wattle fence.
I planted raspberry canes, a blueberry bush, rhubarb crowns, completed the Hügelkultur bed and began laying cardboard mulch paths. One 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 first corner of our plot is beginning to take shape, I used wool as a border mulch and added bark but it’s expensive so I’ll need to find another method.
15 March 2021
Seed potato drawing by a junior pupil
Week 3: Making compost & An Excavation
The Monk's Garden at St Edan's National School, Ferns, County Wexford, March 2021
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. This has since become a vital element of my visual art workshops for children.
To begin, you present 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, composition – and over a period of weeks and months by allowing and encouraging children to discuss pictures, they develop an appreciation of art, the 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.
To discuss the history of ploughing with The Junior Room, I projected a photograph of Ed Morrison’s field at The Harrow, Ferns, ‘What’s going on in this picture?’ I asked.
Two boys nearly jumped out of their seats. They knew the field had been sown with barley.
‘How can you tell?’
‘The rows are close together.’
I was amazed. It was indeed a barley field.
A girl looked at the rust coloured trees in the background and deduced the photo was taken in autumn. They also learned that a picture of land is called a ‘landscape’.
Morrison's field, Ferns, September 2020
To finish our visual thinking exercise, 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 pointed volcanoes chuffing plumes over trees and fences. Young heads quiet for a moment in char, soon babbled, and before long 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.’
To the egg-shells I added kitchen scraps, sticks, cardboard, even 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 reaching behind me, grabbed fresh seaweed.
I mixed it in. They squawked in horror. I lifted a clump of sticky dung from the garden and 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 fantastic 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, March 2021
Senior room excavation
I began working with The Senior Room (ages 8 - 12) in week three. We started by learning how to make and draw with charcoal and the pupils did the circle exercise and experimented with mark-making. They produced some intuitive and abstract works, a delight for me to see. Following this, using existing raised beds adjacent to The Monk's Garden the children worked in groups to carry 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 button-mobile phone.
Excavation at the monk's garden, 23 March 2021
Week 4: Strawberries & medieval wattle
Weaving the wattle fence at The Monk's Garden
Planting strawberries © David Begley
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
Bunny Honey & Sheep's Wool
Throughout this project, workshop preparations have been extraordinary and enlightening. From gathering oak galls to make ink, carving reed pens and making turkey quills, hunting rabbit dung for manure and finding myself tangled in briars cutting willow, preparations have become a full-time endeavour.
At home in Blackwater, having gathered seaweed for compost and shells to make a mulch path at St. Edan’s, we made our way into a neighbour’s field. The herd was in another pasture, the field hadn’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 were 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, make use of the remnants of oak galls left steeping for the Junior’s ink and add some of our 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 Ireland are converting wool and daggings into compost. I continue to be in awe of the possibilities of wool in the garden and on the land. Not only is it being used as a manure in Germany, it's also involved in erosion defence. Mixed with soil, it binds and retains moisture. In the garden, laid over cardboard 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 at home. With luck it will do the same in Ferns.
April 16 2021
Week 5: St. Aidan & Oak gall ink
St. Edan oak galls © David Begley
Behold the humble oak gall: in this case marble galls, gathered in September 2020 from an oak tree at St. Edan's. Galls can be found on the tips of oak branches. When in Spring a gall wasp lays its larvae in the bark of the oak tree, galls grow in defence of the wasp. When the larvae hatch they eat their way out of the gall and so appears the holes on the growths.
Leonardo da Vinci drew in oak gall ink. Mozart composed with it, Shakespeare wrote in it, Irish monks illuminated with it. It's a rich, permanent, and slightly acidic dark brown ink which oxidises and darkens on exposure to air.
To make this medieval ink, gather and crush galls in the Autumn and steep in rain water overnight - or preferably for several weeks. When the liquid is dark brown, strain it into a sterilised jar (boil and reduce to thicken if necessary). For St. Edan's ink we used gum arabic as a binder, and salt, vinegar, and a clove to preserve. As the ink touches paper it begins to oxidise and darken. Iron water can also be added to transform dark brown ink to black (iron oak gall ink).
April 18 2021
Oak galls at St Edan's used to make ink
This week The Junior Room drew sea monsters inspired by the story of St Aidan and the poisoned bread. The drawings were made in traditional reed pen and oak gall ink. 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 garden is sprouting: strawberries are showing first blossoms, spuds are up and have survived recent frost and drought, and our manure is fully decomposed and ready for planting.
A busy morning with the Juniors began with installing a home-made blackboard at the field entrance of the garden and using it for Drawing as a universal language – a drawing and guessing game played through Irish, Welsh, Spanish, German and Polish. Through this we see that ‘fish’ and ‘eye’ and ‘cat’ can be drawn and understood anywhere in the world. We discover that latin was a common language to St. Aidan and St. David and discussed a brief history of Aidan’s life.
The children heard the story of St. Aidan and the poisoned bread which features a journey made on a sea beast from Wexford to Wales. We looked at images of medieval sea monsters and learned how to make oak gall ink. The children experimented with reed pens and ink, and enjoyed writing their names and mark-making before they drew some marvellous sea monsters.
We ended the session by planting Nasturtium seedlings sown by the children. These will grow up and around the blackboard. We discussed how they can be eaten, their vibrant colours, how they have a peppery flavour and are loved by bees.
April 19 2021: Blackboard installed, wattle fence completed, mulch paths begun and our golden rectangle is beginning to look like a garden.
April 19: 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. More seeds to be sown and herbs for to be planted this week.
Week 5’s Senior room workshop began with a visual thinking session – the children discussed a drawing of sticks by Irish artist Michael Wann. They could articulate themselves with confidence on why the sticks were cut, what type (ash) and we learned about background, middle and foreground.
Outside, our charcoal drawing session commenced by repeating The Circle Exercise. The children approached this with ease and produced a variety of strong, bold, and also sensitive drawings. We discussed sunlight and shadow and they drew a large white ball from life. The pupils’ drawings showed excellent development. Next they drew trees at St. Edan’s from observation. The pupils used two foot lengths of alder with charcoal attached. Although challenging, this forced them to adapt and to look and the exercise created an opportunity to discuss how to see, measure and draw angles. Children responded really well and created wonderful, unique and diverse drawings.
Moving from drawing to gardening, we discussed germination and compost making. We learned about rabbit dung as a fertiliser and this led to a discussion of fertilisers in general. There is plenty plantain in the school lawn. The children discovered the use of this ‘weed’ for reducing cattle methane and improving protein content in grass (in 2021 Teagasc are promoting clover and plantain sowing in order to reduce Ireland’s emissions). We learned how to use of sheep’s wool in making compost – this led to a conversation on daggings, shearing, and natural fibre clothing versus synthetics. Many of the children weren’t aware they were wearing plastic but had great insight on the price of wool paid to farmers versus the cost of shearing. We learned about contemporary wool uses - insulation, erosion defence, water retention etc.
After an extended conversation, the children dug the herb and salad beds, crushed shells for mulch, and sowed beans. A very successful workshop but challenging to complete all activities in a short time.
Subjects included in our art and gardening workshops were: Languages (Spanish, Latin, Irish, Welsh, German, English) History, Nature, Art, Science, Geography.
Charcoal drawing from observation by a senior pupil
Horticulturist and sculptor Imogen Stafford kindly visited the garden in April and advised on companion planting.
I am very grateful to the parents and fellow artists whom have given to the project so far. Parents have gifted dung, hazel rods, fleece, Gorey artist Mary O'Donnell arrived with a Lamb's ear which will be one of our sensory plants. Horticulturalist-sculptor Imogen Stafford came to discuss planting. She had advised me during the autumn on fleece and recommended various medieval and medicinal herbs.
We discussed the garden layout and planted spinach, radish and cornflower seedlings grown by the children. We completed digging the salad and herb beds begun by the seniors. I was delighted to have her knowledge and helpful counsel.
Week 6: The Lopscorpyter and Other Beasts
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. Calves play piggy back, wide eyed behind the hedge and later their elders cross the road at Boolavogue, udders bloated pink.
The lopscorpyter by a junior pupil in The Monk's Garden, oak gall ink blot.
Punto and I roll over the bridge and climb to Clone. I have a plan, and have scrutinised it in the early hours, I've 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 is stretched on a frame as a medieval scrapes the animal's skin to make parchment. We learn how colours were found and ground: oak gall black, poisonous yellow, beetles for crimson.
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 shells into paper centres. We squish both sides together and open up the paper to find a creature inside. The children 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 and there are more herbs to plant and a spot of careful, very careful, colour mixing too.
– David Begley, 25 April 2021
Week 6: Senior Portraits
Portrait by a senior pupil in The Monk's Garden, homebaked charcoal
Portrait by a senior pupil in The Monk's Garden, homebaked charcoal
This week the seniors (age 9 -12) drew a portrait in charcoal 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.
April 25 2021
How to bake charcoal
Week 6: Garden Update
April 23 2021: Images from top to bottom:
Lamb's ear and strawberries are well established in the Hugelkultur bed. Although the ground is warm and dry, to put your hand inside this bed is a sticky wet experience. Hugelkultur beds retain moisture!
Starting seashell paths: crushed shells (or eggshells) provide valuable calcium for soil. They also make for a lovely crunch underfoot: mussels go to dust, razor clams snap and flat oysters, although hardy, eventually become part of the tilth. To make these paths I've laid cardboard, poured sand and dropped shells on top to keep weeds at bay.
Transplanting herbs: potted herbs from our home garden soaking before planting – parsley, calendula and mint.
Below the blackboard with a drawing illustrating one of the volcano eruptions in 536, 540 and 647 CE that caused The Late Antique Little Ice Age. A series of volcanoes in Northern Europe and the Mediterranean created an ash cloud so dense, temperatures dropped by two degrees. This change caused bubonic plague, crop failure and famine over a hundred year period. St. Aidan and St.David lived during this time. I mentioned this to the children as one of a medieval monk’s many duties was the care of his community. A monk’s garden would have provided food and healing herbs.
Week 7: Lamb's Ear & 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.
Junior pupils made a scallop border to protect the soil from erosion
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 were flourishing, herbs established, and our first radishes were 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 the strawberry plants a drink from the ground up. To explain erosion I made a mound of earth. We sloshed water over it, the mound collapsed, 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, at that very moment, a rook alighted in the garden and took a wisp of wool from our erosion defence and made off with it, proof for the children that the garden is supporting habitats.
Images top left to bottom:
Juniors gathering and packing wattle fence with fleece to insulate and protect soil from erosion. Salads growing well.
Image above, a Junior brings wool into the garden.
Below: After gardening we took to the lawn for ink colour-mixing. The children carefully mixed and painted colour swatches. Primaries first, followed by violets, oranges and greens and these speckled with the first of the afternoon’s rain. Soon pink pools ran into the lawn, peacock blue sluiced over our sheep's wool and we made a dash indoors.
Week 7: The Water Procession
For six Fridays the ground has been parched. We spoke about drought last week:
‘Our well dried up.’
‘We lost a ram to the heat last summer.’
I had an idea: To experience the importance of gathering water as a medieval, the senior pupils would walk down to the River Bann, learn of its history, flora and fauna, and in the afternoon sun, identify and draw edibles, medicinals, and the four arched Doran’s bridge. After, they would bucket water safely at the bank, take it back to the school to feed the garden, and keep a jarful to prepare oak gall ink.
We crossed the railway bridge as clouds circled. I imagined Normans at the river, spearing otters and salmon for sport and dinner. We were learning about dock leaves, nettle, blackthorn, reed when the first of the downpours fell. We filled our bottles and left, a fluorescent centipede of some forty legs, and proceeded back to school. Along the way, talk of a pupil being caught by Google Earth on the Clone road. Another recently sold lambs at Carnew mart for €155 each.
Back in the classroom we measured our catch: 34 litres of river water.
I began to prepare oak gall ink. The pestle and mortar was popular. Children were full of questions. We discussed the additional ingredients: salt, vinegar, clove, and gum (sap). A boy recognises my blob of resin. He has seen it on pine trees.
They were mesmerised by the transformation from gall to ink. We learned of illuminated manuscripts and passed around reed pens. They practiced writing their names. Dip, land, scratch: thin reed reservoirs empty quickly. Faces pressed to paper. 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 a blackbird or robin feeding.
May 08 2021
The view from Doran's bridge, Ferns, County Wexford, before the junior workshop at the River Bann.
Week 8: Silence at the River Bann
Following April's drought, together with two parents, a grandparent, Ms. Rourk and Adrienne the S.N.A., the Juniors and I walked to the River Bann to gather water. 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.
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 knowledge:
‘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. A blackthorn in flower led to talk of sloe syrup, and how the fruit is 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.
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 that they 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
Gathering water at the River Bann, Ferns
Week 8: Goal Posts & Turkey Quills
Morrison's hedgerow, The Harrow, Ferns, November 2020: elderberry and blackthorn grow entwined.
This week’s senior workshop began with a presentation and discussion on 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 can also be used to make ink. Birdlime is a glue made from boiled holly bark which is spread on branches by trappers to catch birds. We discussed how this features in Roald Dahl’s ‘The Twits’ and how 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.
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.
We looked at images of making inks from materials foraged in Morrison’s hedgerow, The Harrow, Ferns, before exploring medieval illuminated manuscripts and bestiaries. We spilled out into the garden and while I demonstrated how to cut a quill from a turkey feather, we discovered how The Normans made arrows from native ash using feathers for fletches. The children are still interested but at last it’s time to draw.
The pupils now chose a subject from the garden and surrounding field to draw with quill and oak gall ink: sprong, goal posts, calendula, spuds, trees. Off they went, sitting, sprawling, chatting in the afternoon sun, quills busy on paper. A boy finished early and wanted to grind oak galls with a pestle and mortar. He did a fantastic job.
After drawing, the children lined up, beaming. I pushed an iron into the ground, tied to a stick. It made an earthy compass, a crude sundial. I scratched a circle. It lined up with a stone tied to the wattle fence. I marked it PHI and ø.
'Why there?' asks a sixth class boy.
In our next workshop we'll discover why our Monk's Garden measures 5 x 8.1 metres.
May 09 2021
Week 8: Garden Update
Early May and our seedlings are doing well. Spring onions, potatoes and fennel are thriving. Shell and fleece borders are taking shape.
Week 9: Bean Obelisk
For week 9 I sent the senior room an email with instructions, images and a video on how to build and weave a hazel and willow bean obelisk. The children worked in groups to build and install this structure.
As well as erecting the obelisk, they made their own oak gall ink and dyed paper with an ink wash ready for our next workshop. Exciting to see they can work together.
Fennel, calendula, borage and salads in May
Week 10: The Mystery Meddler
On a wet Friday after a fortnight’s hiatus from the garden, there’s a lot to take in: the sight of the Seniors’ bean obelisk makes me giddy, bushy lettuce and crimson radish burst out of the ground, spring onions are bulbous at the tip, the Borlotti bean plants have been pillaged, runner beans lie broken by Thursday’s storm, sunflower seedlings have sprung along the wattle, medicinal herbs and some spectacular weeds are flourishing. . .
The trouble with impersonating an imaginary and mischievous seedling-guzzling purveyor of moist flatulence – a creature also capable of rhubarb leaf meddling – is that children are left with an expectancy for more. I did my best. I oinked, I squawked, I bunny-twitched and I squelched. Their attention so held, and trying to solve the mystery of a lone rhubarb leaf prematurely torn from its root and laid out on the Monk’s bed, we decided the culprit might be a rook. Presently I spotted a bird alight in the garden and mentioned it. Sixteen children scarpered to the glass. It took an intervention from Mrs. Bernie to bring them back to their seats.
Their painting subjects today are the rhubarb leaf, our first radish, a spring onion, an orange calendula flower and pumpkin seedlings sown by the children – through these we learned of second leaves. These thirsty plants will go in the school’s manure-filled tractor tires. The children also learned of calendula’s culinary and medicinal uses. Next they sniffed mint and onion. They studied critter marks on the radish.
‘A bug did it under the ground.’
Junior pupil's painting of a potted seedling
The juniors mix colours before painting their plants from observation
Before painting these plants from observation, they must first look at their subject and a mix a swatch of colours. Second class children share out the primaries and white. The pupils have a brush each, a bowl of water, and a palette between two.
There are teachers amongst first class:
‘Mix blue and yellow,’ says one.
‘Extra yellow for light green.’
‘How did you make that brown?’
‘I borrowed some of her greeny blue.’
A six year old produces an astonishing array of colour. Clear, clean and sure as a professional contemporary painter. She receives a bualadh bos. Eyes wide and beaming, she returns to her work as though bringing colour into a wet day is her national duty.
These children are free rangers. They up and roam, paintbrush in hand with a green blob suspended at the tip, to ask:
‘Can I paint the roots now?’
Working with them is a joy. We laugh and learn. They chatter as they paint. I want to demonstrate something but they are busy in their flurries. I watch and speak when I’m called upon. A five year old conjures spring-onion-white using yellow, blue and white. It is breathtaking.
A boy chants:
‘I did it without teacher.’ His potted pumpkin is magnificent. He is very proud. ‘I did it without teacher,’ he says again.
These children are teaching each other. Their garden is nurturing birds, plants, critters, rhubarb meddlers and the children’s own fertile imaginations. If only every school could have a garden. I am grateful to St. Edan's National School for their willingness to try.
I hope the flowers blossom soon, I can’t wait to see their colours painted.
May 24 2021
Spring onion painted from observation by a junior pupil (age 7).
Week 10: The illuminated fox
The Fox, bestiary page painted by senior pupil
This week's senior session began by hearing about the pupils’ recent bean obelisk build and oak gall ink production – tasks they carried out in my absence. The children enjoyed working in teams and today with a new job list, they are quick to volunteer. A boy grins, he says he’ll ‘Have the bird table for Monday.’
I tell them the garden is feeding birds and insects. A critter has devoured our Borletti beans and another has graffitied the radishes with its teeth. The children vote on whether to protect the strawberry plants or allow foragers. They choose the berries.
The garden’s lettuce is impressive. Our charcoal leftovers might be used as a slug repellant. The children suggest egg shells and a duck.
‘Pellets,’ says a boy.
I won't allow poison in the garden. My comment leads to a debate on chemical spraying. The children are informed through experience. They’re keen to share: ‘If you don’t spray barley, you’ll loose the crop.’
Eight of the children want to be future farmers. Might they give a field over to wild flowers?
Members of sixth class are furious.
For every thirty acres a farmer has, a boy tells me, six acres must be sown in wild bird seed. Promising, I thought, until the children voice their concerns. The seed mix prescribed and supplied to farmers is problematic. It contains invasive black grass and further troubles with linseed.
There are always two sides to the ditch.
We leave the debate and move to the calm of illuminated manuscripts.
The children choose paint over ink and are asked to portray a garden or hedgerow animal on a coloured background with a patterned border. I give them reference images but forget their love of cows and lambs. Children summon pictures on iPads. A 4th class master paints a brown and white cow, and another, a marvellous mouse. These are joined by a goldfinch. With patient quiet strokes, a 6th class girl teases out an exquisite badger using only primaries and white.
Next week we’ll learn why our new path is made of wool and gravel and on hands and knees we’ll tackle some hardy weeds.
The Goldfinch, bestiary page painted by senior pupil
The Badger, bestiary page painted by senior pupil
Week 11: Fennel & Pebbles
Letting giddy Juniors loose in The Monk's Garden is like unleashing a fluffle of rabbits: they scattered amongst the lettuce, one screamed with excitement and began to hop, another stamped on the cosmos.
Radishes and turnips in May
Spring onions in May
I chimed a bright red hand bell and sixteen children froze. They gathered along the wattle.
I began a garden tour with fennel. The children were invited to pick and taste. They pulled at the plant cautiously at first, then in fists. Thin leaves disappeared into their mouths: slow nibbles followed by curious quick chewing, eyes to left and right, noses scrunched.
‘Eeuw,’ announced one.
The word spread and became unanimous.
I offered lemon balm. They watched me eat. I plucked a calendula and dispatched the orange petals. A boy stuffed a flower into his coat pocket. He added fennel, lettuce leaves and later, pebbles.
I introduced our new path. Boys approved of the gravel. It has wool underneath. They tested it for bounciness.
I lifted a flint.
I spoke of flint’s ancient use, of sparks and knappers. The children grew fidgety. Drizzle thickened around us and it was time to run back inside.
Gravel and wool paths
Back in the classroom the children received a pot of gravel and a bowl of water. They looked at me puzzled. We would mix the colours of the stones and paint pictures of them. They eyed me with suspicion, I clung to my plan. We counted uneven numbers. The youngest looked confused. We counted the skipped numbers. I explained uneven numbers (3,5,7 stones) are best for painting. They began to babble. Teacher now looked puzzled too. I gave an instruction about dividing the page in three, and lost them. Time squeezed from all sides.
‘Now, everyone.’ I rang the red bell. ‘When you wash your stones you will see their colours clearly.’
They picked stones out of water and lined them up. It was as though my murky instructions dissolved. Stripes and patterns appeared. Each child found a favourite. Pebbles of jade and dull crimson. Flint in amber and buff. Shale in grey and purple. Quartz in rose and white.
‘Look what I found!’
A rounded black pebble with holes. From an asteroid, I suggested. The seven year old peered at his find. Within it nestled a tiny black stone.
‘Can I bring it home?’
Sometimes a muddle can be a blessing. There’s teaching and there’s finding. The children ask questions. They seek to solve.
‘How do I mix this colour?’
The stone is mauve.
‘Red, yellow, blue with a teeny bit of white.’
‘How do I make black?’
‘Red, yellow, and blue.’
‘Red and green. Try it and see.’
Each of us perceives and mixes colour in our own way. Often by trying to mix a colour, we find another. Today, magic greens and purples abound. Two girls are exceptional colourists. Another is meticulous in describing her stone. She paints its pits and ridges.
Soon we are out of time but no matter. The children have looked and examined and dabbled and questioned. By the end of class their pockets rattle with stones – in a digital age this can’t be a bad thing.
May 29 2021
May 29: Garden Update
Children are harvesting vegetables and salads. They've erected a bright red bird table and painted labels. Everything is thriving.
Senior pupil painting utilising the golden section
Seniors adding their homemade gate to the garden
Week 12: The Bird with The Chainsaw
Week 11: The Golden Ratio & The Meteorite Shower
Senior pupil pebble painting utilising the golden section
The senior room recently built a bean obelisk. At nearly three metres tall it is wonder to behold. The pupils built this on receipt of instructions via an email – formed themselves into groups to gather hazel and willow from the pile, erected and wove, and took orders from their nominated sixth class foreman.
What I didn’t mention to them in the email is that their garden measures 5 x 8.1 metres. This dimension is a ‘golden’ rectangle utilising the golden ratio – a ratio which appears in nature and when harnessed by artists, architects, composers and gardeners can create harmonious and rhythmical aesthetics which resonate with our natural desire for beauty. Why? Because we are also created in this ratio. For example, the measure of our hand from tip to wrist in comparison to our forearm is in this ratio –
Senior pupil painting utilising the golden section
To use this ratio to compose a painting, I abbreviate to 1.162 and mark out the square of each line. On a rectangle 10 x 16.2, the square of 16.2 will be 10. Repeat this for the shorter side by subtracting by 0.62. Where these square lines intersect is known as the golden section. If a painting has a story to tell, place an important motif of the plot on this intersection. Eyes will be drawn to it. Leonardo da Vinci knew this, Murillo was a slave to it and Ribera a master of it.
The children found my marker in the soil: their obelisk is sited on the garden’s golden section. It is the garden’s focal point. Having been built by the children it is a beacon to their work. I broke this news to them on Friday.
To explain, we began with a simple ratio. The ratio of children present with blue, brown and green eyes was 8 : 5 : 2. As these numbers appear in Fibonacci's* number sequence (also in the golden ratio), we learned how to create this sequence. Challenging as this was, the children followed and understood.
I introduced the golden ratio in nature and art: showed examples of it appearing in sunflower petals and seed heads, spirals in snail shells, the arms of starfish, three leafed clover, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and via a short video documenting my use of this ratio in painting ‘The Resurrection’ commissioned by the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, Bunclody, in 2001. Here they saw the light of a Christ figure emanating from within a spiral.
I informed the children that their garden measures 5 x 8.1 metres and that their wigwam is built on the garden’s golden section. The foreman smiled.
Sums and picture-making can be daunting. Explaining the golden section to 8 - 12 year olds is ambitious. Some children were confounded but when given paper prepared with a golden rectangle and marked with its intersections, their painting compositions are a delight: varied, sophisticated, fantastical and individual. By habit these pupils often work in the centre of the page, now the compositions vary. Their pebbles move about the rectangle. Shapes interact. Their colour mixing is also excellent, as though emboldened.
Pebbles becoming meteorites by a senior pupil
They made the activity their own: a tiny black igneous becomes meteorites hurtling through space; a boy drew a mysterious serpentine path around his stones; two girls seated side by side paint distinctive and decorative paintings emboldened by colour. A fourth class boy painted a pattern of muted ovals recalling Tony O’Malley, Morandi and the archetypal forms of Patrick Hall. Every week the unexpected appears amongst them, I find myself in awe.
With ten minutes to spare as the rain finally eased, we moved outside. The children cropped spinach, lettuce and white radish and the foreman and his crew set about tying their new green gate onto a hazel post with baling twine. Soon it was done and they piled onto the school bus and headed homeward for a week’s mid-term break.
* Fibonacci was an Italian medieval mathematician.
– David Begley 2021
For our final workshop of the project, the Junior room and I looked at their artistic achievements. We started with their inkblots – blobs of ink dropped or squirted onto paper and then folded and manipulated with reed pens.
The children squeak with excitement when they see their creations presented on the whiteboard. They begin to offer interpretations of their fellow artist's picture:
‘An octopus with arrows in it!’
‘I don’t know,’ says a boy of his work.
People often tell artists what it is we have made. The children decide that a child’s inkblot is:
‘A dragon on fire.’
‘A horse who is shy.’
‘A bird with a chainsaw.’
‘A heart,’ says the boy who made a heart.
‘It’s two wolves in a house,’ says an eight year old.
On reflection, she says,
‘Two chickens stuck together on a stick.’
‘Looks like a snake’s head.’
‘No, no. It’s a heart.’
This is what happens when people look at pictures. The children discover that others perceive differently. We look at more: bees, butterflies and bones abound. A hedgehog and two heads talking. Lastly, an abstract ink explosion.
‘I think it’s a pile of mud.’
The artist smiles. She knows what it is.
'Heart' inkblot by a Junior pupil, 2021
We look at their gorgeous colour mixing and fantastic paintings. A junior infant beams as his potted pumpkin is celebrated on the big screen. It’s a joy to witness his pride in his work.
After everyone’s work is championed we make our way out into the sunshine and paint one last time in the garden. The strawberries and birdhouse are popular. Pictures dry in the heat and soon we are done.
The boy who painted the ink heart, today paints a strawberry and it is beautiful. I am reminded again how fortunate we have been throughout this project, and of the many lessons I have learned by working with these children. I am grateful and enriched.
My thanks to teacher Ann Bernie and SNA Adrienne again this week for their help and congratulations to all the children for their wonderful artwork.
– David Begley 2021
Junior pupil paintings week 12, May 2021
Art & Gardening for schools
Having witnessed children enjoy planting and keeping a vegetable garden, I strongly recommend this for all schools. Children of all abilities and with different interests learn through the varied activities. The garden can be used as a source for art, creative writing and other subjects. There are many benefits for children and teachers: fresh air, daylight, joy, contact with soil and wildlife, time in nature, exercise, learning about food, growing and eating fresh produce, children learn new skills and develop their motor skills, they become self motivated when the garden is their own, and they learn to work in teams and have fun while doing so.
The more I taught the more I learned - from reading, trying things out and meeting experts, and from the children. There are many lessons that recur for a teacher - the importance of clear instruction and the simplicity of Less is more. Having so much I wanted to share with the children in this project and there being three aspects – art, heritage and gardening – there was often too much ground to cover. When in doubt, I was reminded, keep it simple. Tips for school gardens:
Before creating a garden, the school principal and teachers should be enthusiastic and involved for it to flourish.
The garden need not be large - enough ground for everyone to have their own space or a small plot in which children can rotate activities.
No-dig plots reduce time spent digging and can be set up in winter, ready for spring sowing.
Where possible, source local organic manure (and topsoil if needed). Parents can supply fleece, willow, recycled packaging for pots, spare seed and plants.
Create a rota for watering, weeding, tending and harvesting.
Much of the garden’s produce will be ready for picking in the summer months when school is closed. Make sure children and families have access to this food.
In order for your garden to thrive it will need tending after school or on weekends.
Be prepared to get your hands dirty.
In case of rain, always have plan B.
The Monk's Garden as I left it on June 12.
Abundance in The Monk's Garden, September 2021
The Monk's Garden is part of David Begley's Ancient Connections Artist Residency in Ferns, County Wexford, commissioned by Wexford County Council.