Tuesday, 30 August 2011

A stab of scarlet - Jokerman

When green lords it over the garden, the summer flowers are gone, the autumn yet to come, then is the time to call a tried and tested garden motif into service. Add a little bright scarlet. 

When the gardening world is full of misty endless driftiness and many-plumed loveliness, this may seem a pedestrian solution.  But many of us, struggling through in poor light, enjoy a little heart-lifting in our smaller townier gardens. Scarlet will gain its fullest value from the green around it and will not overwhelm or cheapen in this mode.  Even a single rose or a couple of day lilies will do it. I think these below are hemerocallis Pirate.

Scarlet geraniums are always good, and easy to buy flowering away throughout the summer and into the autumn. The despised begonia is reliable in pots despite lack of  regular care and will put on a reasonable show in shade.  Pop the pot into your under-nourished shaded garden, where ground cover never fully knits and privet rules.  Suddenly the whole place smartens up and there is evidence of a care for appearances which more or less defines the space as a "garden".  A sweep round, a quick cut back of any overhanging branches, you're done till October.

Here's another example of a red minimalist signifier.  No doubt that this is a garden.  Equally no doubt that the effort required has been reduced to a manageable sufficiency. It's from Fota in Ireland. Of course, endless plumes might have been nicer, but we're taking a breath here.

I'm not really one for the "hot garden" concept.  Not keen on being too hot and I find there is a tendency to overdo it.  The removal of all strictures on hard yellows, oranges and reds can lead to a slight loss of control.  Too many flowers of these colours crowded together under a slippery grey English sky can cancel each other out.  Not sure this photo illustrates my point well - it's rather a successful example of the breed, perhaps because there is a softness about the colour selections.  It's from Wollerton Hall Garden.

I have however found myself turning away quickly from such borders, unable to find much interest or enthusiasm. My plate is far too full.  But a tall flimsy grass or a thinly foliaged tree would help, casting interesting shadows and making the shapes less stolid. Ah, you point out, but with the tree, things wouldn't flower so well, Quite right.  We'd be back to where we started.

Here's an example of hitting hard with the red.  It's from the Valley Gardens in Harrogate.  Tough but clear.  I like the way the whole thing is graphic, with no concessions.  We have some sort of regime here.

I know people are getting a little bit fed up with the unavoidable crocosmia Lucifer.  I still like it, but it's best not to try and put too much with it.  Backlighting always helps.

Finally, in this round-up of redness, I have been impressed with the performance of the rose La Sevillana, even in part shade.  It is a tall floribunda, not heavily petalled but shapely, pure scarlet, scentless, repeat-flowering and healthy.  It socks you in the eye from a dark spot but there is a grace about its gait and a sparkle to its colour.  It's leaves are an attractive bright green and the whole plant is unpretentious and completely lacking in blowsiness.  In this photograph it's suffering slightly from recent rain.  (I do not pretend my photos are good, you know.  I just hope they convey something to your kindly imagination).  The flowers are also less crimson, more orangey.


What will Dylan have to offer this theme of signifying something with red?  Let's listen to Jokerman, in the Infidels version, our minds overwhelmed by the complex images that pile in, so suggestive and atmospheric but never quite hanging together.  Wait and you may find something you can clutch onto, suddenly you're lying in a field, a small dog is licking your face.  You're in a churning turbulent world, facing weapons and badness, and you move on, move on to what?  A baby dressed in scarlet!  I find this unexpected vision jumps out from the song, not to make sense of it but, like these flowers against the green, creating a  force that pulls everything towards it.

That baby (a just-born prince by the way) is backed not by green, but by those slippery grey skies.   The red looks darker against them, more regal somehow.  The colour tells you something important about the baby, if not the song.  What else would a baby joker wear?  We're not talking about what used to be called a Babygro here.  These are robes.

So there's our image and our connection.  It is not a satisfactory summary of Jokerman, which is a prism of doubt and paradox.  The levels of meaning multiply once you've found a way into the song.  Michael Gray will explain it beautifully and convincingly to you in his Bob Dylan Encyclopedia.  He tells us about the superhero saint/sinner but I don't think he mentions the baby.  Enjoy the lovely lengthy "Wo oh ooh  oh oh oh oh!" with which Dylan punctuates the chorus - a mixture of a warning, a plea and a call to attention; another sort of red flag.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Timing - Born In Time

Drying yellow leaves are fluttering down in the gardens here in south east Kent.  The spring drought dried the soil out deep deep down and there has been little replenishment.  Recent rains have not come our way.  My heart sinks into my boots.  Few things are as distressing to me as a lengthy waterless period.  I know people go through this all over the world, that they have to watch their crops and animals shrivel and that nothing we British gardeners have to bear  in the form of drought can be comparable.  But even this much is a premonition of death.  I find it hard to settle; projecting into the future doesn't feel possible while we're waiting for rain.

In a wetter year, there is a heavy darkness about trees in August.  In this one, especially on this heavy soil, there is a tinge of yellow and a sad droopiness overlaying all.  The leaves shrivel on the stem, roots lose their way in the cracking soil.  Early rank unthrifty growth, made on the badly drained soil even as the drought bit in April, quickly turns pallid and flimsy.  It was the unnatural earliness of that dry period which has left its legacy, way into the later part of the year and despite rainfall in June.

A thick cuticle is a reasonable protection and I do love a small glittery leaf.  Even now, I can lope quietly round my garden, resting my eyes on the unperturbed greenery of myrtle, pittosporum Oliver Twist, sarcococca and vinca minor (pictured).

Even the small euonymus microphylla gives me pleasure. 

That extraordinary wiry self-clinging personality, muehlenbackia complexa, gives a good account of itself under these conditions, just be ready with the shears in case it actually comes after you.

Below is a small selection of this type of leaf.  I've been charmed by these plants and the jaunty stance of each individualised leaf so often.  To me they don't have the plastic look of the larger-leaved, brighter green  broad-leaved evergreens, they're cheerful in shade because of the glitter and humble in sun because of the darkness.  They radiate a quiet energy.  Many people find this affection hard to understand but Penelope Hobhouse always championed these plants and her garden at The Coach House was an absolute festival of the interesting evergreen shrub.  Closed now unfortunately, and I'm not sure if she ever wrote a real testament to her own taste but On Gardening and Natural Planting are still excellent reads.

Bob Dylan song of the day is Born in Time.  Some people think it a bit of a throwaway pop song.  It may be, it's certainly one of the few Dylan songs you might conceivably break into a dance to.  My musings about early drought  link to what I hear in the song, which seems to be about time-bound conjunctions that fail as time moves on.  Naturally Dylan appears to be mourning a scheming beauty, for whom, once, the time was right, but that is true of gardening too.  We schemed for beauty didn't we?  And it's all gone wrong, leaving us with just the glittering leaves that were armed against the depredations of drought.  By now, no-one feels much like endless water-carrying and hosing.  We'll just wait till it comes right again.

But there's another connection.  Born in Time is set against record-breaking heat, shaking streets and the rising curve where the ways of nature will test every nerve.  Exactly!  Don't get me started on climate change, but isn't he right there, warning us and reminding us, his voice rising immediately after, not on the rising curve (because it's a curve you see, and he wouldn't want to be too obvious), and the whole song kind of lifting you along on a wave of time.  That's what I need, to be lifted on, to the point when it rains.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Judicious cutting - Not Dark Yet

Today I have spent some time letting light in to a small dark garden, at the small dark end of town, on this strangely dark August day.  You may think I’m going to talk about it not being dark yet, but getting there.  All I can say is, not yet, not yet.

So, we're letting in the light.  A large mahonia, probably one of those tall hybrids in the media group, and a viburnum bodnantense stretch up in front of a wall of conifers.  To the side (not pictured) a purple cotinus waves and bends its arms. It’s inevitable, at this time of the year, that some shrubs or trees which seemed to be an acceptable size and shape, and may indeed even have been pruned at their correct time (immediately after the flowers were over, in so many cases) suddenly seem quite irredeemably overgrown and in need of immediate drastic attention.  This is the time when “gardeners” who offer “tidy-ups” will come in and wave their hedge cutters about, creating a multiple blob effect.  Tidy yes, but letting in another sort of dark, the death of grace and natural beauty. 

So how to deal with these three shrubs, if I am to avoid my own harsh judgement?  The viburnum is an interesting case, it grows straight up, to about 9 foot, if it’s happy and strong, with its roots well down.  But it flowers best on older branched wood that has slowed down a bit.  You often find a mixture of both things going on, but if you remove all the old branched growth at this time of the year, there’ll be nothing ripe enough to flower well AND you’ll have stripped all the slightly japanesey character from your subject, leaving it looking like a bunch of tall leafy sticks.  If you take the opposite path and remove all the healthy straight shoots, you’ll be unable to renew the shrub and will be condemned to a cycle of growing and removing ever stronger, more desperate shoots , which will look ever more out of place against the increasingly aged branchy originals.  In any case, it should go completely against the grain of the sensitive gardener, to take out new growth and you may find your hands trembling as you do it.

So the way forward has to be, as you will have guessed, a bit of both.  It’s not very satisfactory, but I sacrificed the oldest, most japanesey looking growth, and the strongest, most erect and forceful.  I either took those down to the base if they were badly-placed or back to an outward-facing shoot, hoping for growth which will slow down, ramify and flower! flower! flower! We’re left with a shrub that’s a bit smaller but less confused looking.  May that be true of us all, in this time of obesity and bewilderment.

Now for the mahonia, a much easier case.  Have courage here, it’s a bit late to prune growth you hope will flower in the very early spring, or even autumn, but to be honest, I have rarely seen a mahonia look the worse for pruning, even when flowering time comes.  Inexplicable.  They just seem to like it.  So simply cut at the height where you would like the next set of fans of leaves to emerge.  It’s usually possible to hide the cut ends amongst the existing foliage.  If you want growth from low down, cut right to the base.  In general mahonias make all their leafy and flowering growth at about the same level on their ever-lengthening stems.  It’s up to you to distribute it up and down the structure, by varied cutting.

 People get strong feelings about mahonias, I take them with equanimity and a measured appreciation for what they have to offer (almost tropical looking leaves, drama, architecture, flowers in winter, shade-loving etc).  I do feel a stir of affection for mahonia japonica however, with the lemony flowers that look like tiny daffodils and smell of lily of the valley.  But less drama and VERY dark leaves.

Finally the cotinus.  This is a shrub that would be better left unpruned really, it seems to like to develop old wood and then takes on a naturally shapely quality and, in some clones, flowers like billy-oh.  Nothing to be done here but take out those branches of purple that were excluding the greatest amount of sky, and take them back as far as possible, to a joint.  In my own garden, I stool a cotinus (in the form Grace, which is less purple, more mixed), taking it to a stump every autumn.  I don’t want it looking like a great beached summer pudding.  This way, it grows very wavy stems of big leaves, never flowers and gets persecuted by thrips.  You win some, you lose some.

Would I plant any of these shrubs now?  They're redolent of 80s and 90s planting and you're unlikely to find them in the Garden Design Journal  gdj@publishing.co.uk amongst the wildflower meadows, the land forms and the Cor-ten.  But I would plant the viburnum for the winter flowers - they screen by attracting and halting the gaze in the winter and their tall leafiness in summer can effectively background your massed grasses if you can get the sun to shine from the right direction.  The mahonia looks worst  when mixed with complicated colourful borders, it needs simplicity and other greens.

So back to our theme of judiciously cutting, in the near dark.  When I first heard Dylan’s beautiful song, Not Dark Yet, (No. 23, Time Out Of Mind version), I laughed aloud.  He speaks like a tactful Grim Reaper.  Then the layers began to unfold.  I don’t respond to each word and line, I listen to what I’m picking up and look carefully at it – it can change every time and with different versions.  But you probably know all that.

Now what I hear is the failure of verve and excitement which attends aging.  We're enclosed in a hot dark place where there's not even room to be.  But I also hear the value of whats left in there with us.  I focus on that, whether it’s a viburnum promising pink flowers in winter, a mahonia looking less jagged and threatening, or my own drooping flesh, my lined face and frequent sense of absolute pointlessness.  But Dylan reminds me, as he always does, that the truth may not comfort, but it does sustain.  Winter will come. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.  Brandishing my loppers I keep on doing what I must, as best I can.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Rocks in the road - To Ramona

AUGUST.  The time when, as a gardener, the thrill has gone, everything lacks sparkle somehow.  My energy is low, little excites me out there.

But then, I drift into a little light weeding or tidying and somehow just seeing the squalid dead stems of campanula persicifolia cut down and the nice leafy rosettes revealed - that's enough to start me off on removing the dead stems of hemerocallis and picking out the browned leaves.  A bit of this and I can almost face pruning the lonicera hedge and picking a bit more gubbins out of the pool.  I weed the gravel a bit - it's just lying on some Type 1 I battered down with a mallet 15 years ago.  I've never topped it up, use a little glyphosate on the weeds that break off leaving their roots in there, but in general I would not say it's too bad a surface.

Sometimes you have to make your own path easy, gently gently creeping up on what needs to be done.

Over the weekend, I removed two large santolina Edward Bowles from the side garden, where they were called "santolina boulders"  (should have been Bowleders) and supposed to give a repeated motif, leading you through the garden and giving solidity and shape without formality.  Plus there are no real boulders here and sometimes all you want is a few rocks.  There is an exquisite French garden (Nicole Vesian was the maker) where this idea is taken to the absolute edge of beauty - proper rocks included.  My santolina are much less tenderly cared for than the tight shapely roundels of that garden, and they are usually allowed to flower at some point every year.  They have pretty pale yellow flowers and grey rather than silver foliage.  But they do get a bit big.  So two have been removed, with some trepidation in case their absence just makes the whole thing look a bit more uncertain.  I'm trying for scale, volumes and spaces in harmony and all that kind of thing.  But of course I'm aware the whole idea is completely odd at the north-facing front of a late Victorian double-fronted house.

So there we go, a sort of idea I nicked and gestated a long time ago, one I've never completely fallen for but that I putter along with relatively happily, it being an area we just walk through or hang about in to see what's going on in the pond.  I would add that this part of the garden was heavy yellowish clay ( the house was a brickmakers).  I have not amended it, just covered it up with gravel and grown things that have been prepared to put up with it, like the santolina, the lonicera hedge, skimmias, the phlomis and the bergenias.

Ideas and fashions in gardening are a kind of genteel republic.  We can all visit gardens and thumb through books, looking for a convincing solution that excites and charms us.  It's fun and it's not against the law, except in very arcane circumstances.  Later on, it's equally easy to dismiss and reject the proliferation of copycats when a particular idea dies, even if we are part of that army of followers.  I'm balancing there, longing to defend myself and carry on borrowing and adapting, but worrying that it will all go horribly wrong and look like yesterday's takeaway.

Turn with me to To Ramona, in the Another Side of Bob Dylan version, for a little light bracing.  So it seems you can get away with "cracked country lips" and still be loveable in your imperfections.  What you cannot do is be untrue to yourself.  Only we gardeners can decide if it's truer to ourselves to follow and imitate the things we have thought admirable, or whether we must throw ourselves onto the stony landscape of unrelenting originality.  Poor Ramona, she had to go back to the south, neurotically longing to be like others.  But what a beautiful tune, how tender he sounds as he condemns, knowing that they are both struggling with the wounds of youth.  They are very real characters, they could almost step out of the song.

We all play a slightly double game when we believe that we don't care what others think of us, I would love people to admire some of my gardening ideas as original but in the end it's not the most important thing.   Dylan of course knows that to be true, though he won't let Ramona off the hook; it's how you use and combine the elements and influences that matters.  I'm not one of those who criticises him for plagiarism, for me he always brings new light and remains himself, whatever he turns to.

If you peer more closely into the photograph, you will see a shaped hedge on the right hand, protruding out behind the pond.  This is lonicera nitida, trimmed against the usual close-board fencing, and it hides it neatly and effectively.  Not an idea I found anywhere else, but it has turned out to be both successful and efficient, despite the frequent trimmings required.  Serendipity?  Not at all.  The tiny leaves work well with the santolina, the fence was quickly covered  and the pond defined - all things I wanted to happen.  Follow others and you sometimes find something different on the road.