Thursday, 29 December 2011

Tearing Up - You're a Big Girl Now

I have devised a new practical education course for gardeners.  Unfortunately, all it needs for true benefit is that time should run backwards.  Pull apart a piece of planting you did 10 years ago and you'll learn an awful lot which I'm sure will help you when you come to plant that same piece of ground.

I have this week unmade my own bed, deconstructed my own plot, picked apart my own underplanting, wrenched out and destroyed shrubs and trees. It has taught me more than I expected and cost me more pain.  I see that my educational plan is also a perfect horticultural curse- may you dismantle your own garden. 

It has been hard, distressing work - despite the assistance of a small digger and quite a few helpers.  We have been able to replant a lot of the bigger items, to form a screen between ourselves and our neighbours, but I insist on the right to feel sorry for myself.  All pleasures should be given a chance.

Here you see the trunk of the mulberry.  We're just beginning the work here, moving the smaller stuff.

You may recall that the purpose of this ghastly exercise is not just to teach me a lesson, or offer me a go at a perverse enjoyment.  We are clearing the lower half of the garden ready to build a small house on it, with a planted courtyard mainly for winter use. It's about 70 square metres, and wedge-shaped.  That's about one of the most difficult shapes to render inviting when the pointed end is furthest from the house.  There was my first error, not my fault at all.

But I crammed it so full, of so many different things.  In the centre of the pointed end they mostly had an orangey tone, to their stems, flowers, leaves or trunks. There was a bit of bluey purple from catalpa erubescens purpurea and hebe Amy. The most orange was from chionochloa rubra, epimedium Ellen Wilmott, oriental poppies, crocosmias George Davison and masonorum, cornus Midwinter Fire, viburnum Onondaga, gold roses and the beautiful bright multistems of luma apiculata, shaped that way over 15 years.
Here it was in March this year.

Bronze fennel and chrysanthemums, anthriscus Ravenswing, iris innominata, purple leaved celandine Brazen Hussy and various species tulips joined in, along with aster Calliope with its purplish stems and leaves and the double hemerocallis for solid packaging.

The whole collection went pretty well together, there was a harmony about the colouring and the evergreens were a raphiolepsis umbellata and three pittosporums, one big, rounded and subtly variegated, resulting in a strong greyish presence to point up the oranges.  The oldish, but small apple tree started me off in that direction, showing an orangey glow to its trunk one year, which then promptly disappeared.  Its apples were always a bright pretty red, fairly tasteless I'm afraid.  I was very fond of it.

In the photograph above, you can see the white flowers of heptacodium miconoides below the apples.

Sometimes as with the big black mulberry tree, you only become aware of an underlying orange tone when you see the roots - here they are, barked like branches above ground, and the strongest orange with purple flakes. Unexpected.  Worse than that, the roots were hugely extensive and very shallow.  Enormous amounts were hacked off by the digger - there was no root ball, no evident fibrous feeder roots at any point.

The mulberry is in its new home next door. You can see it at the very back in the photograph at the end of this piece.  I don't know if you can imagine how I can barely look at it as I pass it there, so close to my garden and yet so stonily unlike where it's come from.  I can't imagine it will live.  I feel utterly, repellently, disloyal.  The luma apiculata suffered in the same way and has gone to another garden, where at least I can't see it.  Enough already.

So now is the right moment to turn to our Dylan song, just when I've given myself a good kicking.  It's one I consider truly great - You're a Big Girl Now - and it's in a version which I consider quite shatteringly brilliant - the one on Hard Rain, the live album.  No more superlatives - they can be wearing, so we'll take them as read.

The thing about this song is that it's about pain that stops and starts.  The arrangement does too, it's like slowly pulling off a plaster, or, to take it to surreal limits, wrenching off your own arm.  Or it's like dragging a big plant out of the ground.  It's about splitting and separating.  Ending a relationship because there's no other way, yearning for there to be another way, regretting past happiness, longing for it all to feel the same, knowing it can't - it's honest, even to the point of acknowledging the competitiveness between parting partners about who's going to be OK.

To me, the trajectory of the song is straightforward.  Man is told by long term partner (or "wife") that they must part, she's had enough. Man is shocked to the core - he was dissatisfied and unhappy but believed relationship was forever and that he was the one resisting ending it.  This is an "extreme...... change in the weather".  He realises what he's contributed to it and grapples with his grief, sadly suggesting alternatives and reasons to stay together.

The title may have worried women who heard it I suppose.  Could it be patronising?  Or sarcastic? To me, the words become absolutely empty as the song proceeds, meaning nothing more than that they are lost to each other. 

I imagine most people have experienced this end of the line feeling about someone who has been central to their lives and who they thought would always be there.  That awful feeling of being carried on a tide you cannot stop, you're part of the inevitability.  As you count the cost and regret the price, you know your own sad acts of accountancy prove the loss must happen. It's a devastation described in the acutest, most accurate detail.

I chose this song for my garden unmaking experience because of the wrenching, yanking, breaking feeling.  Plus the blameworthy inevitability.  There's no sense of relief yet, although I think there should be; the overplanting meant the plants needed release.

I know that mulberry trees can be propagated with "truncheons".  Which I think are long straight unbranched branches, stuck in the ground.  My hope is that this means there's a chance the tree will be able to regenerate roots, but I have no real faith in it. I find it hard to believe any of the bigger plants will survive, the trauma has been so great and they were all so unprepared. Here's where we are now.

An awful thing to find out was that deep down - at about 60 centimetres, the reasonable topsoil gave way to the hardest and driest of clayey, stony pans.  This dryness was startling, we blithely assume there is moisture deep down but it was more like desert.

This area is really suffering from a lack of real rain, though there has been drizzle and dampness, illusory irrigation for the very top layers.  Heavy planting traps moisture in those layers, but the roots had not gone down, the plants were all struggling along together, woven and interlaced.   It's only with the deconstruction that the full complexity of the entire wobbly edifice became clear.

As you would expect, the song is a bit like that too, even as he suggests in the last verse that they might be able to change, you know it's hopeless, despite the entangled roots, they must rip apart.   It wouldn't have been hopeless in my garden but there would have been such poor growth in the future that I would have been forced  to make sacrificial changes.

It's surprising, how like investing yourself in a supposedly permanent relationship garden-making is.  And now, on a slightly flippant note, I'm even finding my plants in somebody else's room!  Oh please let them be happy!

Friday, 23 December 2011

It's winter, dude - Winterlude

Excuse my title, I've stolen that familiar form of address direct from the song, where Dylan places it as an insouciant internal rhyme.  And the word Winterlude is itself a piece of verbal self-indulgence, one I can easily forgive, as I like a bit of wordplay, but not really, truly cool.  But it completely suits this innocently charming and affectionate song.  That's what I hear, and it's going to stand in for my Christmas wish to all who are sweet-natured enough to read these posts.  A happy winterlude to you all.

I have always enjoyed a bit of British winter gardening.  There's no urgency.  The moments when the air is soft, damp and gentle, and the light a delicate, filtered glow are more frequent than you might imagine if you don't spend a lot of time outside, pottering about and gazing round you like a daydreaming teenager, longing for seduction.

I know bright blue skies and icicles are appreciated, and I wouldn't throw such a day back at you, but it seems to me that mild, moist air and quiet grey skies are at least as desireable.  British winters move in and out of cold weather, usually between close to freezing, or just under, right up to pleasantly warm, around 12 degrees centigrade, which could be considered the perfect temperature for easy working.  You get the odd sunny day; sucking the juice out of those has given me some of my most perfect gardening moments. Sometimes however, against a gentle grey sky, the light seems to gleam directly from the greenness of the grass.  Such a light is miraculous.  But it needs a pale bright green to perform that exquisite trick.

Snow, you may note, does not figure too highly.  I've always disliked the deadened, muffled disguise; that shining white doesn't fool me.  Where are all the plants, oh my god, where are all the plants? Even though I know in my head that they're quite comfortable under there, I can't be absolutely sure.  The gardener's rage to control I suppose.

This is fairly typical half-hearted British snow, neither one thing nor the other, not long for this world and incomplete.  We're unlikely to be skating on the river here.

So that brings us to the song - Winterlude, on the album New Morning.  Contrary to what you may have thought, this song is only a very little bit over-sweet and sentimental, just enough to make you wonder how close to the edge it's possible to go.  The singer seduces his lover in the cold, cold winter.  He offers her a warm fire, moonlight, skating, a meal and bold love.  He doesn't really claim to love her, she's a "winterlude" after all, but he doesn't need to.    Anyone who can use such tender, funny epithets as "my little apple" and "my little daisy" will soon have her dropping her defences.  In a way, he's dropped his own - the writer of Desolation Row is coming up with something not far from baby-talk.

I see his little apple as the pale bright green I talked of earlier, the daisy in white and yellow; the colours of freshness and innocence, almost a gardener's imagination at work.  And then we have the lilting, dancing melody, and the feeling of youth. We're almost floating through the snowy landscape, down the road, by the telephone wire, over the crossroads and then back to the physical comfort of the warm fire.  So intimate, this song, all about touching and pulling close.

And yet I know this song is not considered quite the thing.  Perhaps it's a little bit embarrassing, the flimsiness, that choir in the background, some of the images - especially that bit about going down to the chapel. Strangely the rhymes offend by being both slick (in pattern) and haphazard (in banality and slightly off the point meaning).  But, you know, I don't care too much, the song wins out for me, the apple and the daisy are worth it.  His voice is warm and humorous, he's playing as well as seducing.  It's all so........beguiling.

Here's a plant that beguiles me in winter.  It started flowering about a fortnight ago, and although it might baulk at a truly cold snap, it's likely to continue until April.  Sweetly scented, lemony and vetch-like, it likes to grow in a reasonably sheltered position, with comfortable drainage.  It won't put up with being torn about by strong winds, or being lain over in the summer.  I don't think it's crazy about being cut back hard, but you have to keep it tidy or it will make too much top-hamper and pull itself away from its moorings.  It's called coronilla glauca citrina and has that lovely harmony between leaf and flower-colour that is so satisfying to the eye.

This one is about 3 years old; a graceful but ramshackle structure and makeshift stems suggest it is in a kind of halfway house between a shrub and a weed, despite the aforesaid harmony.  No real substance, like our song.  But proper little flowers like this, flowering properly in their season, not just the dribs and drabs untimely left over, or over-prompt, like annoying guests - these are the teeth of the hen of the garden.

To pair with this, another reputably tender plant, although I have done nothing but curb it for the last 10 years, including a couple of fiercer colder winter periods.  It's vinca difformis, marvellous under a hedge or at the back of a border, just stay alert as it fingers forward.  I forgive it for its masses of greyish blue (but the early ones are white)  propeller flowers, blooming and blooming from every node from November to May.  Far more than any other vinca and for far longer.

But leaves are what I rely on to make me feel whole and happy, even in winter.  Skimmias, pittosporums, griselinias (as in the photograph taken at Wisley below) - bright paler greens that look so elegant against the blacker greens of yew and ivy, with the emeralds of box and holly, the silvers and whites of variegated versions pointing it all up.  Without the pale greens, the whole of winter is darkly Christmassy.  In this country, I want the cheerful green light, I suppose it indicates growth to the atavistic brain, responding to signals below the radar.

Odd about plants that really have it in them to make leafy growth in winter.  Arums for example, glamorous pictum with its remarkable expensive-looking variegation or the plainer creticum  which will have pale yellow spathes of flower in February, these make luxurious pointed leaves in the colder months.

Then there's geranium malviflorum which develops it's lacy leaves from tubers in November.  They grow on until April when you get these delicate, complex flowers.  Then the whole thing disappears completely, back underground.  You can see the leaves beginning to turn yellow and die off here.

One other - tulip Bakeri Lilac Wonder.  Utterly reliable in this climate, it's a lilac bowl of a tulip, with a bright yellow centre and black stamens.  It creates stoloniferous roots, and bright green leaves which shoot up about now, the flowers following in March.  I wouldn't grow it for its leaves alone, but they are bright and purposeful.  Something has to keep us going.

But let me end these heartening thoughts about green leaves in winter with my best brightener - another that's taken a fashion back-seat, but makes me happy anyway; it's my own little green apple, hebe rakaensis.  Some people use the word "tump" to talk about a sturdy rounded little plant.  I'm not going to in case you think I'm being twee, as some think of today's song.  But it is sturdy, and rounded, with no help from the knife, just quite naturally and innocently growing that way.  And it is the very best source of the pale green glow, shining and glimmering in the cool air, illuminating other colours.

So that's it, we can round off our winter plants with a glass of something by the fire.  Goodwill, comfort and joy, all round!

Friday, 16 December 2011

Leafy architecture - Hard Times in New York Town

The first time I went to Turin I was a little alarmed.  This is a city we must pass through regularly on our train trips to and from our prospective home in Mondovi.  It seemed gilded yet martial.  Glance sideways and you could imagine Savoyard armies clattering through the squares, almost see their sabres glinting.  I saw a cluster of young soldiers in Piazza Madama, everywhere we saw statues of fierce soldiers and generals.  The endless porticoes seemed dark, the park at the Giardini Reali was disappointing and I took no photographs.

But things have changed a bit.  A friend explained to me that Turin is "the Prussia of Italy", so I felt vindicated.  And I started to recognise some of the particular realities, the history and the successes of this city.  Then, on my last visit, where I had time to walk about and do what I do, which is check out the trees and the plantings, I almost fell in love with it.  Of course I was lucky - it was the Feast of the Immacolata - we had an evening of the most charming celebratory bustle in the streets and finally cracked this apericena business ( aperitif and bits to eat thrown in).  Now, still warlike but more chocolatey, Turin holds no fears for me, although I'm sure it would if I was 18 years old and had to make a life and a beginning.

Before I start on that theme, let's go back to the trees and the plantings.  It's always fascinating to see how trees cope in the apparently impossible conditions of the city.  There are so many problems, below the ground, above the ground, in the air, survival seems impossible, and yet, they struggle on, flattering the architecture as nothing else can do.

Turin has a particularly beautiful street tree to offer - it's celtis australis, an elm relative, also known, oddly enough, as nettle tree.  There has to be a reason.  I have a weakness for elms of course, we all do.  They combine a sweeping elegance with intricately disposed leaves; they're airy but majestic.  But they've met their doom, both in this country (UK) and America, where I know their loss from cities is still deeply mourned by those who remember their graceful height and delicate foliage.  This celtis is so far unthreatened by Dutch elm disease, I'm almost afraid to point it out, so keep it quiet.

To support such loveliness the nettle tree has trunks of silky grey smoothness.  Sculptural pillars, uninterrupted by burgeoning growth from the base like limes and immaculate, like the festival.  The wonderful plane trees of London, and so many other cities bear multi-coloured plaques.  The bark of the nettle tree is a simple grey, with a slight sheen.  I would say that these were pollarded at a certain height, and then let go. Not all have these masses of equal branches.

And. to complete my paeans of praise, here they are in winter, silhouetted supermodels.  Supermodels who cope with exhausting hot summers, droughts and freezing winters. 

It seems to me that city trees are worth their weight in gold.  City farms, parks, community gardens, acres of bright flowers, whether bedding or in the new bee-friendly annual mode - all these are worth a lot.  But it's the street trees with their stored time that can challenge the city and lift us out of ourselves, just as we walk about.  Even the robinia can look fantastic, with its tiny leaves and complex branching against the sky.  Ginkgoes are good, as are silver limes, liquidambers and sophora japonica, in continental climates.  Here's that robinia, in Turin again.

Hard Times in New York Town is a very early Bob Dylan song and I've been listening to it on the Bootleg Series 1 -3.  I've seen it described as tongue-in-cheek.  He does call  New York "a friendly old town" which may be sarcasm or the triumph of hope over experience but, apart from that and some pointed comments about the wealthy and powerful, he seems to draw a concrete and accurate picture of a complex place and its effect on him.  The exaggerated intonation of the country in his voice and the youthful, emphatic energy make light of the difficulties of moneyless city life; he's got his hope and self-belief to see him through.

The verse about the smog of Cali-forn-i-ay and the dust of Oklahoma, the repeated  "from the country" or "in the country" - these make me think of the sweetness of trees in the city, their offering of comfort and kindness, the way they can seem like tall, brave friendly humans amongst the traffic.  Dylan is too excited by his city life to yearn for the country, but the whole song is imbued with it and its contrast to the city.  I salute his cheerfulness and optimism, people move to cities all over the world longing for so much - I wish they could all find what they want and surmount their hard times. 

There are few flowers in Turin and not many shrubs.  Bedding out is undertaken but France is a better place to find successful and amazing public plantings, practised by experienced gardeners. Here's an example from Turin which struck me as a contrast filled with bathos.  Hoping I've used that word appropriately, don't often get the chance.

And here's another, much more successful, but just as unlikely.  I think it's a cloud-pruned camellia Spring Festival.  Quite a horticultural feat, and I saw a few of them outside various monuments.  Piquant contrasts with the warlike gentleman on the horse.

Turin has much more in the way of parks; there is the Parco Valentino down by the river, full of trees and as busy as any beautifully designed and planted central city park could be.  But there's not as much underplanting as I would like to see and the stress of overuse by the massed writhing life of the city shows.   I've caught my photographs unpeopled at lunchtime, when everyone in Italy disappears.  As Dylan  sings, endearingly, or affectedly - take your choice - "There's a mighty many people all millin' all around".  I hope at least some of them draw strength from the trees, living exemplars of coping with hard times.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Keen to commit - Love Minus Zero/No Limit

We're getting ready to leave our new house and prospective garden in Italy. Both are still uninhabitable and more or less unuseable.  Winter is gathering strength, despite the fortunate, sunny, seemingly endless late autumn. - perfect weather for roofing; ten more days should see it done, they tell us.

They have already finished the garage which now just requires new doors and digging out the earth banks and scrub around it.  A huge orange campsis - the only strictly ornamental plant in the garden  - has had to be sacrificed.  Strangely, the garage looks better without it, especially with its new roof.

There is fresh snow on the mountains which curve round our town.  The quality of light today gives me the chance to brandish the word "pellucid"; our shadows are long, the air still, and frost lay over the hills till ten this morning.

I feel that strange sensation of new attachments growing, out of my legs and my brain, filaments and synapses connecting and tethering me here. We have to see this person and that, go here and there, busying about like real inhabitants.  It's all so happy as we pay our debts to pleasure and to ourselves. I hate to think what new debts we might be accumulating in the circle of hell reserved for the too lucky and the over-blessed.  We're fending off environmental guilt with photovoltaic panels and trains rather than planes, but I don't think that can possibly cover all the glories of our lives, at this point anyway.

My thinking today is about that wilful act of commitment to a particular place and garden.  If we have the chance to make such choices, we carefully weigh the odds, almost like rational beings.  Then we defang the negatives and close our eyes until only the pink light gets in.  That's what I'm up to at the moment - propaganda for my own consumption.

Whether it's love, babies, jobs, gardens or countries, the first rule of a sensible life is to be content with what you have personally chosen for yourself.  Fail at that and it is hard to recover your confidence.  Our geese must be swan to us at least.  Perhaps you think Dylan has little help to offer here.  Partly right, but he can show us how to settle our own choices most comfortably in the mind.  Try Love Minus Zero - No Limit.  You could even try it as a fraction; the minus zero over the no limit, as he intended for this supposed love song; suggesting, in my mind at least, a calculating and glacial infinity, not quite the protagonist at the mercy of the tender heat of his emotions.

I'm surprised to discover I only have the Budokan version of the song with me, but it strikes me as pretty good, clear as a bell and attentively, conscientiously sung, although the flute may add too much fairy gaiety. The poetic paradoxes are frequent and effective, the images potent and the melody successful.  Can you hear the restraint in my praise?

It's because I'm having to hold back years, literally years, of hearing this song and feeling breathless with rage at the absolute cheek of the man.  How dare he say that line: - "She knows too much to argue or to judge".  Of course I speak with forked tongue here, I know that the earth would have to spin off its axis before I could restrain myself in a similar fashion, but even so.  Surely all women feel compromised and at least irritated by it.  Surely it means, she knows enough to keep her mouth shut.  Ah no, I see it means she's reached some plane of calm wisdom where arguing and judging can only diminish.  And I know that can be true.  Bother.

It would be hard to gainsay the obvious attractions of a life-partner who will neither argue or judge.  The comfort and permission inherent in such characteristics!  We should none of us have to put up with arguing and judging, it's obvious. So I can run myself round a complete circle here.

Well I hope I've made that bit clear.  It only adds substance to what I wanted to convey - that the song is about a person who's describing his own choice to himself in a way that reassures him that he has chosen well. He's not really saying he loves her, he's saying she has the right characteristics.  Seeing her like that allows him to gloss over what else might be true of her.

It's as if I said my new garden was "natural" "wild"and "a blank canvas".  Reasssuring but not really true. It's got that inimitable view of the town, underground springs that make the ground slump and is in parts, very steep indeed.  There is no ease in the walking, it's hard work to get down to the woodland.  Boar come and plough about with their noses, quite close to the house.  I'd be fooling myself if I thought I couldn't get the garden wrong, it being so natural and forgiving and all.

Here's one way I've laid a tentative, nervous hand on the land, so early in the proceedings, whilst all is chaos as the building proceeds.  I've planted some species tulips, muscari, erythoniums and camassia here and there; just to see how they do.  We've scattered some bricks about on the top because we hope they'll discourage any passing boar snout.  But I suspect small bulbs will be favourite boar food.  There won't be any arguments anyway.  So that's another way of assuring myself of my commitment, imagining patches of bulbs in sping and trying to make them start. If they grow I will spread them thankfully, believing in my own perspicacity.

The work of the song in confirming the correct choice and commitment of the protagonist never stops.  The woman he believes he can love doesn't make promises, her faithfulness is beyond the foolishness of those who "carry roses".  She can't be bought with valentines, she knows strange riddles about failure and success, in a world of sour intellectualism and pointless chit-chat she holds the keys to wisdom.  This is to compare her with those he has not chosen and it is to her benefit.  It's like me looking at the gardens we didn't buy, and picking holes in them.  It's what we do to commit to the thing we want. We make comparisons that cast a better light.

At the end of the song, we get the coup de grace, his love is like some raven at his window with a broken wing.  Apart from being exquisitely ambiguous and revolutionary as a description of a loved one, this line tells you even more of what he's telling himself about why he's choosing her.  Her similarity to a raven makes her inexorable (Poe's raven is too) so he's not absolutely responsible for his choice, she has in some way required it.  Her broken wing; ah there we have it - she needs him, she is not whole.

Well my garden is only inexorable now because we've already bought it.  But I can fully identify with the needs I perceive the house and garden to have, they are visible wounds and will require all my energy and effort.  What else could improve a choice so well as a bit of reciprocation?  There's the beginning of a vision in my mind, of a happy garden, smiling in the sun, the possibility of easy strolls up and down along mown paths amongst trees in meadows and shrubs clothing the steeper banks.  A seat or two under the trees, some glades at the woodland edge, vines on a pergola near the house, loquats, quinces, pomegranates and elegantly thin tall hedgerows such as are common, but beautiful here.  All this will be the rewards for my commitment.  Let's hope my particular raven is a swan after all. Let's hope I'm only fooling myself as much as I must to settle in and attach myself.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Quite a lot is revealed - The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest

So I was gazing out at my garden in Kent, only days ago.  It’s facing Armageddon.   A revolution has to happen within the next few weeks;  big shrubs and small trees will be wrenched from the soil and some transplanted at my neighbours.  Others will be sent on journeys elsewhere.  A small house will replace them and a winter-blooming courtyard will be the garden.   Around the older house a lot of garden will remain for the discerning buyer.

In autumn there is often a bit of elective moving about of plants in every garden.  I can never resist trying for a different effect - grouping, contrasting or just plain fussing.  But it’s not usually as frightful as this.  It all seemed so much smaller and easier at a distance.  Close up, the work and the risks seem alarmingly big.  My heart almost fails me.

The rewards are going to be immense.  We have acquired a wrecked farmhouse in a hilly bit of Piemonte in Italy.   We’re supremely fortunate, far more than we have any right to be.  But the project is rather big – to reconstruct the house where it needs it and somehow find a way of developing a garden.  Today I want to think about gardening here in Northern Italy– in what is partly abandoned farmland, near the charming town of Mondovi, about 400 metres above sea-level, about 80 kilometres inland from the Ligurian coast.

So here’s a simple take on an Italian town garden, taken in Turin.  It gives us some interesting clues to what will grow around here, between Mediterranean and Continental climates.  The large evergreen is laurel, the small trees are field maple, the ground cover is liriope, the background is ivy and the yellow tree is a gingko.  So we’re not in a world of olives and lemon trees, with scented herbs underfoot.  Slender Italian cypresses,figs and oleanders are not for us.  We have chosen an area surprisingly rich in kiwi fruit, hazelnuts, escaped robinia, nameless poplars and enormous abounding conifers. Nearby in the Langhe some of the best wine in Italy is produced, - Barolo, Nebbiolo and Barbera, so not every preconception is doomed.  Truffles of course – you can barely move for them.
Nonethelesss  it would be unwise to mistake this place for somewhere that it is not.  My gardening will be fraught with confusion and discovery.  Heavy snow is normal in winters which are longer and colder than I am used to.  These snows break plants.  As for the rest of the year, I don’t really know yet.  The soil is creamy-grey when dry, and heavy, and  I’ve got rather a lot of it.  Something like 5 acres of burdock plus a considerable amount of steep woodland. 

Here’s a delightful tree, beautiful in shape, bark, leaf and fruit.  It’s the kaki, diospyros lotus sometimes known as Sharon fruit or persimmon.   This is the one reasonably healthy domestic fruit tree which we seem to have inherited.  I have always adored the fruit, which I remember ripening on Roman balconies when I was a wild young student.  They’re like the golden apples of Hesperides, wondrously hanging till Christmas. 
On his mysterious and adored album, John Wesley Harding, Dylan offers us a funny, troubling story of concealed conflict and fear in ‘The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’.  It’s a tale of two friends parted by money.  What on earth can this have to do with our innocent Italian adventure, where we have been greeted with nothing but charm, kindness and good cheer?  As usual it’s all happening inside – a sense of fearful, over-exciteable panic about my gardening here.  Like Frankie Lee, I’m taking a “soulful bounding leap” into an unknown horticultural area, through which I dread to rave, not knowing what to do and misunderstanding how to save myself.

Straightening out the soil will be difficult, managing the slopes, the drainage, the roe-deer, the infestations of wild plum and robinia......I see I’m starting to tremble and foam at the mouth.  And that’s without even thinking about the major issues of Design;  how on earth to fit the garden nicely round the house when we’re dominated by the view of the town.  In the picture above,  where a sloping wooded ravine (ours on this side) separates us from that town, you might get some sense of our view from the end of the house.  How to add definition, a sense of garden and shape whilst retaining naturalness, how to make it interesting close to but restful in ambient; what to plant; where to begin, how not to feel guilty about such opportunities and thrills – so many troubling thoughts;  Frankie Lee would be right at home.

Here are some of our dying apricots, set on slightly terraced land.  There is little live wood, and what there is is errant, rising from the rootstock, inadequate and confused.  I’m informed that enormous amounts of fungicide are necessary to keep these particular shows on the road.  I don’t think I’ll do that. 

Perhaps the biggest problem is that of a garden being “where it does not belong” just as Dylan tells us is the moral for the protagonist in his strange ballad.  In the photograph above you may be able to see that the farming around is often of fruit trees and hazelnuts set out in grid patterns, right up to the old farmhouses.  Where even small gardens are created, they often follow this pattern, with a collection of trees or bushes set at regular intervals from each other, no borders or strong open spaces, or paths to lead you round and about to view the plantings.  This is farming, not the domestic orchard, with spaces set for tea.
So I’m in a foreign land, it’s not what I’m used to – oh the clashing preconceptions;  oh the visions we carry in our heads,  oh the difficulties inherent in mistaking paradise for that house somewhere else down the road.  From the town everything we do will be obvious, nothing will be concealed.  Feel the terror mount.
From the song, I’ve left out the perfect image of a stormy relationship which develops between the two characters;  and it is both alarming and hilarious.  Poor Frankie Lee, he seems to be at the absolute mercy of his emotions.  But his errors are his own, only his own.  So perhaps the other moral ought to be:  calm down, observe and consider.  Clarity will emerge, we hope and believe.  I’m sure we will fall into error but it need not be fatal, like some other irresistible temptations.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Glittery depths - I Shall Be Released

You might be thinking I'm going to talk about water in the garden and, having spent the last week dividing water lilies and hooking out dreck you're not a million miles away.  However the glitter and the depths I'm referring to lie mainly in the song I'd like us all to listen to, one of admirable economy despite its shimmery layers.  It's I Shall Be Released, ubiquitous and familiar, perhaps taken for granted.  There are many versions and covers.  I don't know the best one and would welcome suggestions.  The song itself seems robust enough to cope with whatever gets thrown at it.  Pick one and listen to it.  You could think about what you would welcome release from.  And what that would really mean.   So much of what we yearn to escape from is actually the stuff of life.

But it's the strength of the song that is our gardening platform.  Resilience and a bit of beauty.   I'm going to reveal some of my dearest old friends in the plant field - ones I turn to with confidence and love shining in my eyes, knowing they will always fulfil my needs, and that when I turn to them in their season, I will, once again, feel that interest and admiration that first proved they had captured my attention.  They, at least, shall not be released, not from my garden anyway.

The thing is, the glitter is not a surface shine.  It lies within, these plants don't sock you in the eye, they're gentle, kindly offering their support with hidden charms.   Unless you want constant upheaval or have light, rich moist soil, sunshine from all sides and no slugs, you might as well learn to love a couple of stalwarts.  Dry shade and heavy soil will always support bindweed and ground elder.  These plants won't oust them on their own, but they are stable and hold their own ground.  I  would not count really prolific rampers and seeders alongside them for those plants create other problems which need attention.  These require one cut a year, no more, no less.  I'm sure they wouldn't throw mulches and division back in your face if you wanted to pay the extra attention, but they won't peevishly demand them every time you pass either.

Here's my first, still flowering in this weird warm November, having started in July.  It's a very quiet colour, greyish-blue, and you could almost use the word dimity about its patterning.  It's called calamintha nepetoides, sorry about that, we could paraphrase it as  "relative of the mints with nepeta-like characteristics".  Perhaps it has a common name like "lady's lacings".  If so I'm not familiar with it.  Don't be misled - we can just make them up but no-one will know what we're talking about.

Anyway, it's lovely and enhances most things it's put with, demonstrating how big and bright they are. Against a green background it shows up better than you might expect. Turgid dankness or sunny concrete, it seems to be happy just to get the chance to please you. If you touch it or brush past it, you get a gust of mint on the air, not quite culinary in quality but fragrant and exciting.
You increase this by digging it up and breaking it into small pieces, each with roots and shoots, in the spring, or you can take spring cuttings from the new growth.  That is also your last chance to cut the whole thing to the ground.  I have done it at different times - late autumn, winter, very early spring, it has never reproached me.  Calamintha grandiflora is nothing like as good so don't go off at a tangent.

Next one:  tellima grandiflora rubra.  Very well-known this one, but many have given up on it, seduced by heucheras.  I cannot find pictures of its flowers, that tells you something of course.  They are a forest of pale spires, with tiny greenish fringed florets decorating them, from top to bottom. They appear in May and sometimes emit a scent, even in this reddish form which is supposed to lack it.  The leaves have a high-quality finish, appearing more substantial than most, without bearing the plasticky shine we have all learned to dislike.  It's high-grade material, tweed, not acrylic and shot through with subtle colours that amplify to purply red in the winter.  Here are two and a tiny one centre-stage, which will join up slowly and inexorably. 

The cut to the ground takes place after the flowers in May. Be uncompromising.  The whole plant then renews itself, looking smart and finished under and behind other things till they die away.  It will be untouched by trouble, slugs or drought.  A mild winter will see it looking attractive throughout. I don't find it heaves itself out of the ground, or that it dies out in the middle, or that vine-weevils love it. 

These are the characteristics we're looking for in this group.  Membership is only granted if the plant does not easily surrender to weeds, does not need attention other than the one cut, is attractive and will cope with heavy soil, drought and  a degree of shade.  The ability to flower and produce a little nectar for early or late bees is also a desireable attribute.  Naturally enough, in your garden, you might make a completely different list, adapted to your difficult but prevalent conditions.  Without going on about them, I'm going to add a few more at this point - two grasses (not deep shade); carex Frosted Curls and chionochloa rubra, a hosta; plantaginea grandiflora and that old familiar day-lily, which flowers intermittently here but has very pretty foliage in shade, Stella D'Oro. Also ballota acetabulosa, at  the dry shady base of a hedge.  Any epimedium, making sure to cut all the leaves off before the flowers come in early spring.  In harshly cold areas, that wouldn't work, the flowers would collapse. 

Some traditional ground-covers could come into this category but not all: the one I would go for is geranium macrorrhizum album, not the brighter pinky one, which can look a bit spotty, but the beautiful pale version.  Girly-looking, but iron-clad, like so many girls.  It will cope in an unwatered pot for a year or two till it chokes itself, but no such worries in the open ground.  Once its flowers are over some people would run a strimmer over it; I just use shears.  It's a good example of what happens to so many ebullient plants - if you leave them without the post-flowering cut, they try to rush off and find fresh ground, their middles collapse, long stringy bits extend, the plants waste themselves seeding and you end up with a bit of a mess.  Keep them fresh and bright with early surgery! 

What a useless photograph.  See that pinkish glow behind the short hedge mid-picture?  Well, that's the geranium - about a square metre of it.  And my only picture. 

Time for a break and a think about the song.  You're bound to know it and its muted anthemic feel. Years ago, I believed it to be about unfair imprisonment and of course it still is.  But the expected release has such a ring of sadness.  That can't be the only thing it means.  So it might be about a prisoner awaiting capital punishment, his release will be from life as well as from prison.

We're talking about another near-perfect song here, one that is able to balance, with great conviction, on the tips of the meanings that it seems to hold, never falling and never losing its mysterious completeness.  But it's not one that carries you somewhere else, and its imagery is not astonishing.  So it's easy to overlook.

Here's one of its simple charms - the expression "any day now".  Not a cliche, but ordinary.  However in the song these three homely words, repeated,  and the significant position they take create a sort of verbal pivot.  Listen to them freshly -they mean the release will happen in the future, or immediately, or never.  They express huge uncertainty, a longing for the release and a focus on it which also might be anxiety or dread.   Perhaps they do all that in ordinary conversation, and I've just never noticed.  Anyway, here they are carrying the weight of the song.

Perhaps you don't think we can expect the plants I'm mentioning to take a pivotal place in the garden.  You might be right; they're not stars, they're support  acts.  But what they can do is be the engine of your own release, and unless your garden is truly tiny, you will relish the peace of mind they can offer, especially if you use the quieter ones in broader sweeps.

How about giving rue (ruta graveolens) another try?  It has rather dropped off the radar since people discovered it could give you a rash if you rolled in it in the hot sun.  Don't do that.  Plus it's really no use as a herb, having a ghastly taste. You need to touch it just once a year, use gloves and cut it right back (I have in mind a cabbage stalk) just before growth really begins in spring.  So that's about late March these days but a little alertness will mean you get it right.  It doesn't like to stand about  naked like that in the cold.  I use it quite a lot, it doesn't usually flower with my treatment but does offer a rather fabulous tight blue glow.

So one more plant, about which I have absolutely no complaints - omphalodes cappadocica.  Bright, bright blue flowers in spring - no reason to mess about with the stripey version.  Brightish green leaves, so well-behaved, just a little angel. 

Once again not a very useful picture.  But you see the blueness.  And this one just needs a tidy up, not the complete cut to the base. It will then just quietly tick over, till next spring.

There are more, I'll save them till another occasion.  Let's now go out on a final thought about this song, releasing us from the prison of struggle and care, or freeing us from the very things that make us who we are.  We see our lights come shining and perhaps, like me, you feel you know what that means, without being able to put your finger on it.  We are our own lights surely - can it be that?  Without the shine from our own selves, there's nothing.   So many ways of seeing it, this is a song where the depths glitter like mirages.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Mastery, mystery - Copper Kettle

Funny thing about conifers.  They have a slightly humanoid aspect.  When they're big they lower over you like pointy giants, when they're small they tend to "people" a garden and if you get a lot of them they look a bit like a small crowd.  I think many of them are problematic in gardens, not just because of fashion but because there is something intransigent  in the strength of their shapes and colours.

Here they look a bit like an advancing army.  And yet it's Scone in Scotland, where they have both the space and the informality to accommodate their magnificent specimens of Douglas fir.  But I don't feel tempted to wander amongst them.  I think it's the regularity of their branch-spacing as well as the darkness and pointiness.

It's peculiar that a plant with such useful qualities of architecture and personality, evergreen, easy, quick and tough, can impose so heavily on the landscape as to leave us feeling dominated and depressed.  Perhaps many of you are shouting "Speak for yourself".  Well, that's quite fair.

One of the things I wanted to do in this post is draw your attention, or redraw it, to one of the most beautiful songs Dylan ever sang and never wrote.  It's Copper Kettle, on the despised Self Portrait album.  It is the perfect camping song.  I feel  the sun on my face and the bite of the mosquito, discomfort and pleasure mixed.  Suddenly I'm a rufty-tufty semi-outlaw, glorying in the filling of jugs with home-made whiskey, loving the moonlight, and the firelight, chatting about the burning qualities of different woods.  The song gets you there  very quickly, you can hear the dripping of the amber liquid even before it starts.

Pines I think, and no camping debris
The only person I really ever knew well who had been brought up in this harsh woodland way of life was from a family who made their living by charcoal- burning.  He was apparently and unnervingly deferential but actually hard as nails.  Would rip out his own teeth with pliers, and be at work on a scrapyard within the hour.  Strangely, amongst the charm of the evocation in the song, you also hear the relentless toughness.

Now listen to how Dylan sings the word "juniper" - the first time anyway.  He does it with a mixture of hilarity and benevolence.  It is indeed a beautiful word, as Donovan reminded us later.  Botanically, as juniperus, one never knows which syllable to stress, but juniper has every quality a lovely word needs; rhythm, attack and the bonus of enfolding a couple of classical gods.

This name almost transcends what is essentially such a wild and scruffy plant.  And a bit of a chameleon too, differing in its mature and juvenile foliage, endlessly producing new versions of itself, looking very different too according to the conditions it finds itself in.  And it produces those other-worldly berries, which turn out to be cones which have become berries, despite their own spikey coniferous little hearts. Aromatic fruitlets, that's what they are.

I did a little research to see which kinds would be best for a home-grown source of those very fruitlets, but lost heart in the midst of irrelevant detail  and the inability to tell one conifer from another.  This is  particularly noticeable once you get to the selected garden forms, bright yellow, blue-green, flat, thin and pointy, swirly. After a bit you feel you've got lost in a vast old peoples home, full of gaudily dressed residents.  Introductions have got you nowhere, they're all different, but all somehow the same.  That's a little harsh, but we'll all get there, so I allow myself.

The overweeningness of individual conifers is specifically a gardening phenomenon, for in the wild or in those awful plantations, the sense of mass makes it all feel different.  And at least we're not responsible.  In British gardens, best stick to Scots pine, yew and Italian cypresses or other very slim conifers.  Cupressus sempervirens Totem is a good one and a little hardier.  But maybe it will end up a giant and I will have to eat my own words.

The garden above is Plas Brondanw,  Gwynedd, North Wales, the home of Clough Williams Ellis, who designed Portmerion.  Interesting differences in style from that extraordinary place.

Yew is itself a strange paradox, the most malleable and flexible of plants, yet also the most architectural and formal. We're totally in control so we use it to shape, divide and define. It's an uncompromising colour and does not seem to have developed dozens of princeling sports which people would be tempted to let grow freely.  Thank goodness.  Be a little careful of the Irish yew, which becomes a tight inky block of uprights in the landscape as it ages.  And it thickens unacceptably, the opposite of the slenderness it first meant to embody.

To me, Gresgarth Hall, an otherwise mostly stupendous garden, suffers from a multiplicity of disruptive Irish yews.   Some surprise me, being quite recently planted. I can see the big ones would be hard to remove, but that's true of all really large conifers.  We are vanquished by them, it's hard to imagine having that space again and the screening provided in small gardens seems indispensable, even when they've shot off into the sky.  The Irish yew is not used for that purpose, its slimmer upright form when young is a subsitute for the Italian cypress in cold areas.  But do think again if considering it, for those who will follow us.

A lot of our submissiveness towards the suburban conifer has to do with too many quick-growers (chamaecyparis fletcheri, lawsonii etc.) having been planted 30 or 40 years ago, when they seemed so satisfactory and multi-purpose.  It seems to be easier to take out a whole screen of them than the occasional enormous individual.  Look around at the gardens near you and imagine fewer of those strong, jaggedy shapes, replaced perhaps with puffier, gentler trees.  I think it would be nicer, nearly always.  But do not feel criticised.  This is but a thought, not a fatwah. And I too have done the same thing; left two conifers at either end of a row, because they seemed so intrinsic to the garden's privacy.  Holly or holm oak, that's what I should have done.  Or phillyrea latifolia, beautiful and too little known.

So, we gardeners, so bent on our own pleasure, have underestimated the conifer on the whole.  Like addicts, we have enjoyed the sense of mastery as we, or our parents, first used them to achieve our own purposes.  Our tolerance has grown, and we haven't realised, they've defeated us. Poor little artist cultivators, our gardens are governed by dinosaur cuckoos.  

The owner of the next garden has been defeated, but doesn't yet realise it.  And is still planting other conifers.

The achievement of mastery (or mistery - its female equivalent), is a significant driver of human behaviour.  To surmount the odds boosts us at the deepest level.  Often the very next thing we do is look for another set of odds to surmount.  On Copper Kettle I think you can hear Dylan rejoicing in his own ability to nail the song and his triumphant happiness illuminates it along with the moonlight.

Ironic that the song itself is about such a hard life, for which the family's refusal to pay tax on the whiskey since 1792 is victorious recompense.  I hope you will listen to it if you don't know it.  Just so you know Dylan can sing.

Here is a picture of Innisfree in Milbrook, New York - a supremely beautiful garden round a lake, every element manicured and considered.  So this conifer must have been deemed acceptable. 

I turn to more mastery.  Russell Page could be called the doyenne of garden designers if I had a really clear idea of what a doyenne was.  Well anyway, he's very grand, designed an enormous number of grand gardens for rich landowners in many parts of the world earlier last century, and wrote a wonderful, much-admired book called The Education of a Gardener.  It's quite a read, dense with experience and accumulated knowledge, not much quoted these days perhaps, but I never pick it up without becoming absorbed in his thinking and ability to extract the essence of a garden design issue.  So I turned to him on conifers, wanting a little masterful support for my views, and was delighted to find this;

         " I find many of the hardy cypresses (he means chamaecyparis species) extremely hard to place in the garden.  I know them to be valuable as a windbreak and useful as a background; but their spikes break the skyline into such ungainly silhouettes that they seem to me only tolerable when growing amongst other trees at least as high as themselves.  Like spruce and fir, they too may well be impressive in mass in their native forests, but I can seldom recall seeing a garden improved by their presence."

And now for the coup de grace;

         "Taste varies in gardens as in most other matters.  I can respect another's predilection for them without understanding it.  I hope that one day I will see them successfully used."
And here's a final photograph, following Mr Page's strictures on fountains in flower gardens, which he thought a bit much - "like a wedding cake waltzing"

But, you know what, I think I can cope with the flowers and the fountains.  It's in the South of France after all.  What disturbs me more is those two blue cedars in the background, which even have the cheek to differ rather radically from each other.  There's a private war for mastery going on out there.