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.


  1. Beautifully written. I can only assume all the information is correct because this woman knows everything about gardening.

  2. Spot on. This is just the time for the edge and freshness of scarlet - if only there were more perennials with true scarlet flowers..(so don't knock Lucifer..)

    Your thoughts about Wollerton Old Hall make me wonder if all the flat planting and grasses we have seen recently have made a border with large herbaceous clumps look totally old fashioned? Our 'eye' for what looks good has changed?

    That (WOH) is a garden which does feel old fashioned (which is, of course, also an old fashioned word..)despite some stinging uses of colour..


  3. @ Anonymous Thank you so much. Are you and I related?

    @ Anne Wareham - thank you for commenting. I feel almost like a ship struck with a champagne bottle. As for WOH, yes it made me feel oddly tired - there was just SO MUCH colour and shape. None of us WANTS to be led by the fashion nose, but the proportions have all changed and it feels like we can't go back now.

  4. @ Anne Sorry about the shouting above, didn't realise it would look so awful!