Thursday, 29 September 2011

Feeling thankful - What Was It You Wanted

I was thinking today, as I yanked at the ropes of brambles infiltrating their rooting tips over, through  and under some close-board fencing, how very thankful I feel to Bob Dylan.  Gratitude is fitting for people you don't know personally but whose work means something to you: it's clean, distant and close at the same time.  It's also completely imbalanced.  And I have a reasonably bad case of it, I'm happy to say, for the gain is all on my side and gratitude adorns the grateful.

The brambles of course, don't seem to have much to do with this.  But I hope you'll be very grateful for this tip, if you have a problem with them.  They are not really plants: they're actually a sensitive and slow-moving animal which has been cursed with  geometrical progression.  How else to explain their absurdly tentacular feelers (which earlier in the year were held back in the body) now extending outwards, sometimes for metres, hunting and searching for a little bit of damp soil?  Invariably they find it, in the most knowing way too, between the cracks of paving stones, right under the fence line, between logs left in a heap, through cracks and holes.

Now, if you can get in there, give a firm but gentle pull to each of the long flexible arms and you'll find they come away with their touchy-feely tips intact, even though they may already have a healthy little bunch of white roots, growing away into their chosen spots.  Catch them at the right point and you'll save yourself a world of trouble next year, just make sure you get that bunch of roots out.  Of course, if you're short of brambles, the answer to how to make more lies there in front of you.  I have less than nothing against the blackberry, it makes me very grateful, but, as we know, location is everything.

The above picture shows you a group of extended limbs.  They are in different stages of development, some just fingering the ground, another rooting, a third starting its own new limb development.  I cannot think of another plant that self-layers with quite such unquenchable and humanoid determination.  And it happens in these last six weeks or so of the growing year, when the fruit has blackened or been shed and gardeners might be beginning to turn their backs.

I'd love to see a speeded-up film of an undisturbed bramble in in a field: if you had a line of them I think you might get a wave-formation in two directions as they bounded off, if you just had the one, you might get a sort of pebble in a pond effect.  Either way, it would be a marvellous thing to see, making one give thanks for the power of nature.

Here's a picture of that very thing, a single bramble surrounded by invadable territory, I'll check on it next year to see how it's getting on.

So, this sense of gratitude, let's think about it a bit more.  Not entirely unrelated to some sort of love, it's gives great joy to the person feeling it, somewhat less to the object-person.  The person saying thank-you has the glow of satisfaction and connection in their eyes, the receiver of thanks is more likely to look a little distracted and perhaps even rather tired. It's nice to be thanked, and it's annoying not to be, when you've made a big effort, but it's not usually the main reason for doing a thing.

In the gardening world there are people I feel gratitude to, I even wrote a sort of fan-letter to Christopher Lloyd.  When he wrote The Well-Tempered Garden, there was nothing else quite as good, he wrote with verve; opinions and experience pouring out of him.  It almost seemed as though he were standing next to me, pointing things out and explaining how wrong-headed I was.  How could I not feel grateful?  On top of that, he noticed the things I longed to know about in plants of every kind.  In The Adventurous Gardener, he continued the good work, helping and explaining about cuttings and cutting back - all stuff that has rubbed off on me as confidence and familiarity.  I appreciated his energy, his wiliness and his conviction which he was kind enough to share through his books.

If you can find it, Foliage Plants is also written with the same opinionated enthusiasm.  I believe these were his first three books and they all have the endearing habit of summarising a page with a soubriquet at the top ( examples:  "blue spruces are too popular", "liver-tinted bergenias" and "Be kind to the aucuba"). His later books, for me at least, moved into a more ordinary category.

I have so many pictures of Great Dixter that it was hard to know what to choose.  I landed on the one above because it is truly a mixed border, something that has fallen with a great clang to the bottom of the fashion heap.  Look at those shrubs - here's Mr Lloyd, still getting away with it, although he is now in the great mixed border in the sky, I am sad to say.

The next photograph shows what prompted me to write expressing my gratitude.  Apparently, some sort of Visigoths entered the garden at night and chopped off the heads of some of his many topiary birds.  I don't know where I heard it, but my possessive sense of connection to Mr Lloyd encouraged me to believe that the matter was nearly my business and that he might derive comfort from my gratitude for his past works.  Who knows whether that turned out to be true.

You will note that my gratitude to Mr Lloyd has a slightly strange edge - I have pilgrimed to his garden so many times that I feel sure you would like me to show you round.  My grateful appreciation has muddled me up. And now the word "bumptious" has entered my mind in his regard and I can't seem to root it out.

Here we can turn to a Dylan song, from the album Oh Mercy.  It's a low-voiced, insistent psychodrama entitled What Was It You Wanted?  Endless questions, a mixture of confusion, irritation and hard-won patience from the singer/protagonist, who seems unable to connect with the person who has sought him out.  This is the very voice of the individual on the receiving end of thanks, unable to recognise exactly what is being conveyed, seeing that it matters, but unsure what to do next.

So many people feel great gratitude to Dylan, I do too, he kindly gives me something to think about and enjoy, nearly every day.  Thanks feel to be in order.  But I cannot  imagine that they would hold any interest for him, or that they would even make much sense, and that is precisely what I hear in the song - bafflement and boredom.    Sadly however, there is an even less welcome undertone, one of deep suspicion.  Not only has he been collared by some tongue-tied fan, he's worried there may be more to it, some kind of attack or maybe a demand.  And on top of that, he cannot quite grasp what the fan is saying, he can't remember the words and everything keeps disappearing.

He's right to be worried.  Gratitude has a very dark side.  Precisely because it costs something to the person who feels it - a mixture of longing, obligation and energy - it can flip right over into bitter resentment, disappointment and anger.  The imbalance should not be so poisonous and is not always so.  But balance is what we unknowingly crave and long to restore.

The singer is worried and beset, but an odd thing happens to me when I listen, I can't hold on to the song, its repetitions and tone contrive to erase the words as they're sung, the only bit I can retain is the moment when he darts off, then returns to try again.  The words die in my head as they die in the mouth of the desirous follower.

You may be wondering how I will wrench the idea of gratitude back to the opening bramble.  Well, I won't. Something slightly different was in my mind.  The bramble sends out its flexible tentacles that root where they insinuate.  Dylan too, with his sinuous, sensitive voice (OK sometimes prickly, rasping and lacking in ordinary beauty) sends out feelers of words and sound that can root deep,  changing the terrain in your head.  You cannot trace the bramble further in this analogy, pull it out, just where it's trying to invade.  The song we have looked at is not one where he seems to be reaching out and finding purchase, it's more like the very experience of withdrawal, all antennae disappearing.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Weevils in the bud - Just Like A Woman

So there we were, in the Garden of Eden.  Fruit in our hands, beauty in our eyes, trumpets in our ears. I wasn't required to do a thing.  Flowers grew and small animals danced.

I bent to pick another enormous wild strawberry ( flavour and size go together in heaven). A small brownish nose peeped out of the purplish sedum at my feet - and I could just distinguish a tiny, creamy body, circled like a piece of reinforced piping. The whole thing waggled about with a kind of wretched, pointless energy, perhaps a sort of savagery even. I was looking at the vine weevil grub, portent of despair. 

I stood my ground with the sedum.  That is, I dug it up, collected the grubs, took a few limbs off the plant, beheaded them and stuck them firmly in the ground elsewhere ( for sedums, you can call these "cuttings").  I then split and replanted the cleaned up root system, having checked it very carefully.

Of course at this time of the year vine weevil children are just settling in for 6 months eating, mining right into the roots.   I have had plenty of opportunity to study these little beasts at the two distinguishable stages of their development.   But rarely have I seen such cheek from the young mobsters,  they mostly remain underground, doing their wicked work of eating the roots from the inside, so you don't even know where evil lurks.  You find out in the spring, when you discover that heuchera leaves part directly from the soil, all underlying parts having been destroyed.  All sorts of plants are attacked, but, with unexpected rationality, they prefer a thicker, juicier root if they can get it.  I do not believe they enjoy bindweed, which just proves there's some sort of error at the heart of things.  Here are some ordinary sedum in a different garden, God knows what's going on in there, but perhaps their ordinariness will save them.

Many years ago, when I first found a potful of grubs, I picked them out and tried leaving them in a saucer of insecticide with a bit of soil for comfort but essentially in full contact with the poison, presumably drinking it.  Nada.  They were still the same size and just as randomly lively, legless but still waggling about, a full two weeks later.  So expressive, and annoying, that pointless, hopeless movement.

I tried another thing.  Emptying a big pot where a plant had died, in the spring one year, I did not feel up to binning that large amount of good compost,  so I tried picking the grubs out.  Squishing them is very nice, a bit like bubble wrap.  But, I thought, why not enlist the wildlife, let's leave the compost spread out here, on the slabs, where birds feed.  They'll surely pick them out for me.

Well, a bit.  But not enough.  No real commitment to hunting them out from underneath.  Chickens would have done it, but I didn't have any chickens.  So, passing over the soil-soaking chemicals, which may be fine, but I just don't have the psychological strength  to use, I  have turned to nematodes, the biological control. They have been successful for me in the past.  If you think you've got vine weevil, the warmer autumn  months  are your best chance to get the nematodes onto them.  If you think you haven't got vine weevil, well, you know what I'm going to say next.

Stand back! Here comes the mother, from Wikipedia, not my own

The interesting thing about these little beasts, apart from what they're for, which nature knows and I don't, is that they are ALL female.  Take that in if you will.  I believe it's our fault, perhaps apocryphally so don't quote me, but I think I heard it was an adaptation to DDT.  The vine weevil battalions responded by ditching  the men; they were perfectly capable of endless solo reproduction, up to 1500 a season per womanly adult, it seems.  I leave you to check my facts - I may not know them as well as I seem to.

What a lovely neat link I can make here, straight to one of Dylan's big guns - Just Like A Woman, from Blonde on Blonde.   I'll attempt to pick the bugs out of it, for myself as much as you, for this is a song that seems to speak directly to the listener, and if she's female, she'll know the news is not all good.

For a start, there's that contrast, between the woman and the girl.  The full-bodied creator versus the immature, damaged damage-doer.  It takes me back to my youth, listening and worrying, thinking "well, all that strong, womanly, taking, aching and making: I wish I were like that, but I'm rather afraid I'm not".  The whole image seemed both distant and suspect.

The only way to identify with the song was to be the breaking one, the little girl one.  We women hoped it was charming  to be so sensitive, knowing there was something wrong with that hope.  But we so easily recognised those moments of little girlhood.  The result was that some of us felt diminished and uncertain.  A mangled feminism allowed us to add an element of blaming (men) to that particular list of weaknesses.  So it went on. The song stays in your head, but for me, is always a bit of a worry.  The singer is finding a woman wanting in terms of strength of character - exactly where it hurts most and where many of us, male or female,  may fear a deficiency.

But I'm grown up now!  So I'm over all that.  After I've told you about this next photograph I'll give you my grown up reading of the song.

This flower should not  be out at this point in the year, but  the plant has produced a few late buds.  It's eucryphia lucida and I think it's also called Ballerina in this pink version.  It's rather a  perfect little girl, nodding a  sweet head, dressed in pink and white.  Ribbons and bows would cheapen it.  I may have exaggerated its size so don't expect a thing like a camellia.

For those who wish  to know more I would add that it grows on a thin evergreen shrub or near-tree.  The plant has little presence when not wearing its heart on its sleeve, fading easily into the background.  It doesn't appear to be difficult but may prefer part-shade and as little lime as possible - if you feel like giving it its own way.   It's a plant that engenders affection, one whose flowering you anticipate with pleasure.  A nice thing to add to a town garden.

That all makes us feel a bit kinder to the little girl doesn't it?  But now for what may have seemed blindingly obvious to many of you for years, the song isn't really about her at all.  There's only one person close to breaking down in the song, it's the singer, who can't stand the pain in here, becomes inarticulate ("ain't it......clear?") and has to leave.  This is not the inadequacy of the female - it's the so-called "crisis of masculinity".  You know, all that stuff about repressing the softer side etc.

Looked at with older post-maternal eyes,  it's possible to distinguish an anxious young man, whose needs are great and who hasn't space for the needs of his female companion.  Everything is laid out here - the neatness of the projection onto her, next to the painful sense of panic so dramatically displayed in the central section.  I used not to believe that; I thought he was just telling some sort of truth, now I see he's engaged in a battle with himself, which he absolutely has to win.

I wonder if I will win my own battle, not to make a trite comparison to vanquishing vine weevil, when the song still makes me a little bit sad.  I see my own worried young self, who has taken so many years to hear the obvious.  I see any sensitive young person, struggling to be unmoved and fearful of the demands of a relationship. I see the shells hardening, necessary but hurtful and hurting.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Choosing - Pledging My Time

A discriminating eye sees to the heart of that which the world offers.  Only the best is selected, the granite work-surface, the perfect wine, the over-designed light fitting.  This has been a truly marvellous way to shift stuff and money in ever-decreasing circles.   And now look where we are!

So easy to sound prissy about this, and I am sorry to admit to having been unwilling to make the best choices in so many areas thoughout my life.  A slight  puritanical contrariness in my nature often means I will cling to something that to everyone else is beyond old hat.

This photo is not old hat, it's old shoe.  You might, if you peer closely, be able to detect the pathos and sweetness of  the observation in it.  It's actually not a shoe, it's some sort of trainer, at the end of some very hard travelling.  My friends bought it for me, appalled at my taste but convinced that my affection was real.  I still admire the skill of its execution although I am bewildered by how it was made, I thought it had been laboriously carved out of stone, someone suggested it was bronze; that's seems even more unlikely.

This story has some kind of moral, though I can't think what on earth it is.  After a period of happy possession, I noticed that there were three strange roundish half orifices around the rim, or upper, as I like to think of it.  It's an ash-tray!  Probably mass-produced.

Let's get back to the safety of gardening.  When we choose a shrub or a tree, we're also choosing a great chunk of time and space, all of which has to be devoted to that chosen thing.  You can't plant on top of it, and it will take up more space than you thought if it grows well.  The time devoted to growing may not be your own but it comes out of your life allotment.  You could always have been growing something else.  And if you don't like it, or it fails, you won't get that time back.  These are the brutal truths of gardening.

Here are two cercidyphyllum japonicum trees, also known as katsura.  Every gardening book will tell you that their dying dropping leaves smell of burnt sugar in autumn, and why should I deny myself the pleasure of repeating it?  I have actually smelt it.  The first is young:

The second is just over 100 years old, it's a Champion Tree in the Morris Arboretum, Pennsylvania. Round of applause please.

Decide to plant a tree and you are tying yourself to a contract.  On your side, you are offering to be happy with your choice as it grows and develops.  The tree, unable to commit in the same way, will simply perform as best it can and be what it is.  So you're the responsible one.  And it's simple enough, just choose the one you like best. Repeat, SIMPLE.

Before we contemplate the task in greater depth, we'll select the Dylan song, a short ditty from Blonde on Blonde, called Pledging My Time.  Is it because it follows Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 and 35 (Everybody Must Get Stoned) which opens the album, that it gets so little attention?  Perhaps everyone is too busy wiping the blood from their ears.  A heavy-handed pun can hurt, when repeatedly and thuddingly thrown.

Pledging My Time seems to me, despite a couple of unexpected lines, a straightforward take on what it means to commit to a choice.  Time is the least and the most that can be offered, and time is precious. Looking back over something close to 50 years, Mr D. must feel he's kept his side of the bargain, in my view the song now reveals itself to have been about the contract he was offering to his audience.  

I'd like to nominate this song, so cheery and forward-looking, to a different category of music  - " the jaunty blues".  Purists will be delighted!  There's even a bit of a joke in it, about the hobo who first stole the singer's girlfriend ( I can't quite bring myself to call her his baby), "then he wanted to steal me".  Sounds better when he sings it.

My analogy with planting a tree collapses at the verse where he points out that he cannot be the last to leave the stuffy room where only he and you (the apparent pledgee) are left.  Presumably this means that he's prepared to walk out if his pledge of time is getting him nowhere, but he's not prepared to be walked out on.  He'll be committed, right up to the point that there's no more point to the commitment.

Let's say that a tree you have planted  is quite clearly a mistake or a failure.  Apart from anything else the damn thing defines you in your own eyes. You're the one who must remove it and plant something else.  Get on with it!  Time is passing.

Don't mess about in a new garden planting the small stuff until you have got the major players in - trees shrubs, hedges.  If you're lumbered with a huge shrub that you're not happy with, try pruning it up from the inside, aiming to achieve a few clear, graceful stems and proportionate trimmed top growth.  That way you steal previously pledged time, releasing a small loveable tree from a hulking mass and making everyone much happier.  It's a moment of accidental luck.

This one is a griselina littoralis, I don't mean to blind you with science with the names, but I would not feel I was fulfilling my pledge to respect my audience if I kept it from you.  It's an appley green, soapy fleshed evergreen, good in most places in the UK, doesn't mind wind.  Whoever pruned it up needs to get back to it, you may be able to detect new growth springing from the right handed trunk.  That needs cutting off, but how little time and effort for such a lovely woodland creature.

See George Schenk (in my book-list) for encouragement and advice on this sort of gardening plus a comprehensive list of shade-loving plants.  It's the best I've ever seen, even if he does cover more climates than might seem immediately useful.  He's a charming intimate writer who speaks from his own experience.

My own garden is a sad indictment of my foolish tree choices.  I have been positively incontinent with pledges to too many different varieties in too small a space.

This photograph is rather flattering of a small but greedy area.  The entire list of trees in my garden would give my kindly correspondent Anne Wareham, who has written a very excellent book - entitled The Bad-Tempered Gardener, absolute palpitations.  I read it this week and was startled by the unanimity of our thoughts about all sorts of things.  But then I look at what SHE has done with her time in creating Veddw, one of the best gardens in the country, versus my own scattered and diffuse achievements.  For I have many gardens.  But not enough clear-eyed commitment!  Not enough discrimination or proper choosing!

How strange that we both found Robin Lane Fox's Better Gardening so helpful - it is is all about choosing plants.   It gives you inspiring advice both on what to choose and how to choose. It looks like one of us heard a subtext - "limit your choices", and it wasn't me.  Hmmmm.  I promise I will do better in my next garden.

This photograph is like a snatch of harmonica in a Dylan song.  It gives us all time to think, and breaks things up. In Pledging My Time you get a heavenly burst of that very harmonica. He stays right there, not leaving, on a high note.  Oh listen, do.

I think I said choosing was simple, a few paragraphs ago.  Just take a glance at the lists of malus and crataegus (crabapples and hawthorns) in Hilliers wonderful comprehensive Manual, or in the RHS plantfinder online.  Smallish, easy trees, but look how many!  And the gardener has to commit.  Someone needs to explain  what to look for and pick a few good ones out and that's what Mr Lane Fox did, in a jovial but opinionated way.

Back to Dylan's song.  I can't leave him without pointing out a crucial repetition.  He is not a man who is prepared to be unrequited.  He pledges his time lightly and generously but "hoping that you'll come through too" .  The line is sung with an equal weight on the last two words and no separation between them so the "through" comes through the "too".  It could be "two", both sides of the contract. Mutual commitment between sentient human beings, that's what he wants.

I have to hold myself responsible for the massed confusion of my trees and renege on my pledges to them. Dylan doesn't need to renege: people are still listening and turning up so as long as he still has time to give, he turns up too.

A lucky accident pops up in the last verse.  We don't quite know what Dylan means by it -  it could even be rather sinister.  It's something gardeners recognise; visitors will often admire a perfect plant for a particular spot,  when all they are looking at is good fortune and a choice which sprang from a chance, not the other way round..

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Contrivances - Angelina

I love the word contrivance,  it implies a thrifty amelioration - what could be more worthwhile or charming?  "Let us contrive to make the best of things, Amelia, despite the misfortune of losing our cook, our home and our friends."  I contrived that, there is no Amelia.

The best contrivance in gardening, which gets me everytime, is the sight of distant sunshine through a foreground of graceful trunks. If you can get that to work, you will never go wrong, if you can come across it as you round a corner, even better.  Others classics are large ponds in small spaces, dark dank pathways opening onto wide sunny slopes, dark doors opening to a vision of flowers, pergola shadows falling aslant, distant eyecatchers,  retreating columns, the perfected sylvan glade.... I'm almost hypnotising myself.

Today we're going to think about contriving on a big scale, we're going large, really large, almost monolithic. Before we do that however, I'm going to outline the perfect recipe for getting rid of bindweed, well-known and dull it may be, but I keep finding people who don't know it.  You do have to stick at it - I'm quite tempted to go on and on about persistence.

Anyway, unwind it carefully from what it's grown up and over, retaining only what is still attached to its roots, stuff it in the plastic bag of your choice.  Spray inside the bag, around and about, with glyphosate, tie it up firmly, squidge it about a bit more to distribute the spray as much as you can, stuff the bag somewhere out of the way.

As you do all this, a boring, irritating job in my view, listen to Angelina in The Bootleg Series (vols 1 - 3) by Bob Dylan.  You will be lifted way above the menial task, I promise that, as much as I promise that the bindweed solution will  eventually work.  The glyphosate seems to continue to remain active as it circulates amongst the leaves of the bindweed, due to heating and cooling within the plastic bag.  In a few weeks all the green will be a nasty rotten mess.  The roots should be dying, way under the ground.  I mention it now because the time is ripe, autumn is forcing deciduous plants to suck what they need to survive back down into their roots. You have avoided spraying the killer all over the place. You have done an excellent thing. You have added not what they need, but what you want.

In case you want an alternative  - remove all plants from the area and all vestiges of bindweed from their roots.  Store elsewhere, lay turf or grass seed on infested area.  Mow for a year or two, dig up, replace plants.  Or black plastic the whole area for a similar amount of time.  There'll still be bindweed round the edges with these last two solutions, I'm sorry to say.  I'll stick to the bags, thriftier and more ameliorative, as contrivances go.

Right.  Let's raise our sights and get back to some monolithic contrivances. Two famous gardens -Chanticleer and Dartington Hall.  I lay these names down like trump cards, but they're huge in scale, far too heavy for a mere mortal to lift.

Chanticleer is in Wayne, Pennsylvania.  It's huge and intensively, luxuriously gardened.  With a vast stone ruin, made like an abandoned library, at its heart.

Dartington Hall is in Devon, UK, made in the twenties, as part of a programme of ideals, education and natural justice, with a Henry Moore overlooking a huge sunken "tiltyard". Both gardens are costly, visionary achievements.

First, have another listen to Angelina. Spot the connections?  Well, nearly all Dylan takes time and concentration.  Turn to Michael Gray's Encyclopedia again for a complete, and compelling, exploration of the song plus a surprise about the subpoena.  Or stick with me and get a tiny little bit of it, all related to the art of the garden.

Gray describes Angelina as a "grand failure". Dartington Hall is, for me, a sublime achievement, so that's not the connection,  Chanticleer is balanced on the cusp.  But both gardens have one particular wonderful moment: a journey to a high point, a turn where there is yet more to detain you, then an expansive view, calling you to step into it.

This photograph, at Chanticleer, shows too much tree.  But I hope you get the feel.  See the path winding away in the distance.  At the same moment you're surrounded by the most astonishing plants and furnishings, rank upon rank retreating behind you.  And you turn to take those in, whilst hardly able to draw away from the view.

There we are, at the beginning of Angelina -  "Well, it's always been my nature to take chances, my right hand drawing back while my left hand advances." The second half of this sentence is an image of a kind of creeping, wary movement.   Distant half-spoken cliches are reborn; "The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing",  "one step forward, two steps back".  The feeling is that of an opposition, a nearly physical dilemma. You hesitate, unsure and doubly transfixed.

So to Dartington's similar contrivance.  You are led to a wonderful view and drawn out towards it at the same time as being stopped in your tracks at the spot where you stand.  Your next step is uncertain, backwards or forwards?  Movement or stasis?

Ideally you will listen to the exquisite end of the song as you look at these photographs. They are illuminated by that last verse, but I do not ever want to interfere with images that may be in your own head.  It's not the same, it's just a similar feeling:

We start off down this rather non-descript curving path.

Round the corner, past the vase, down the steps (no angel! no spiral staircases).  Round another corner -

Bang!  Oh I wish my photographs did it justice.

Can you see the arena beyond in the first of these last  two photos?  You can definitely see this multi-faced round thing, (Heavens!  It's a rolling stone!) which makes you back up to see it better, pivoted round from the view (note the tree in both)  in the second.   Two things, pulling you two ways.

Out there it is, it really is, an arena  Just like in the song. Do read Michael Gray about stepping into that if you can.  It's all a question of taking chances, putting yourself out there.  And hear Dylan's voice, the climbing, the stepping and the turning in it, the final release.  Angelina never fully formed herself, amongst the idols and the dictators. The things she rhymed with were almost too much for her anyway, so exotic and so complex, dare I say it - almost contrived.  They made me smile and they charmed me, but they didn't finally persuade, although the protagonist's voice is clear and vital, thoroughly connected on every knowing level.

Against those idols and dictators, creating gardens may be a small, unneccessary indulgence.  I know that.  However Dartington convinces as a garden and as art, it's inevitable, enormous, meant, with stairs elsewhere that seem to lead you straight up to the heavens. Just to wind this piece up,  I'll point out that bindweed would  not infest such a garden.  Such weeds would surely fall away, like sand from a hyena.

Monday, 5 September 2011

The effort economy - Man In The Long Black Coat

I'm reluctant to waste effort in the garden.  I like what I do to be quick, significant and where possible multi-functional. I have three rules:

Cover the soil up. 

Know when to cut down or prune and do it nicely

Grow easy plants

The first incorporates planting things so that they join up, mulching, not amending the soil, and not digging.  The second usually includes localised weeding and attention.  The third speaks for itself but is about eliminating fuss and being appropriate.  I don't like spraying and generally only use light quiet tools.  A good hand fork, small secateurs and a little folding saw can achieve a remarkable amount.  Mowing I leave to others who like it.  

Of course there are dozens of supplementary processes and activities.  My rules are just simple guides.  You CAN have free will in the garden.  You MUST follow your own vision and desires. But plants are not random entities and time is short, so a little understanding is in order.

I have another subconscious, take it for granted rule.   Always leave any garden looking noticeably better in the present, but always get something done which is aimed squarely at the future.

A lot of gardening is basically housework outside.  We all know that, as we sweep up, gather up, pick up and finally glance up with a wild surmise, asking "What is this for? "  "Has someone run off with my life?"  That's when you need the vision and the desire.

For most of us, there is a time when no effort is too great.  We go through periods where gardening trumps almost every other activity.  However most of us arrive at a point of balance where not every simplification or relaxation is to be rejected.  I think I started pretty close to there, seduced by ground-cover, adoring the shrub, always reluctant to dig in great loads of manure, although I believed in it, just too bone idle.

Ken Thompson's books have told me only what I want to hear.  He's good on feeding and composts, leaving me with the conviction that even using garden compost on clay soils is unneccessay enrichment - leading to mad fast growth - leading to more control needed, leading to more trips to the compost heap.  Stick it on the veg is his answer.  Time moves gently for the first two years after planting, then it often speeds up and gallops off with your vision.

Mulching with small leafy prunings and lawn-mowings is a good way of reducing effort.  As you reap so you sow, dropping them as close to their place of origin as possible, pushing them out of sight, covering the soil.  In a large garden this will always work amongst shrubs.  At the back of a wide border, dead wood and proto-compost can accumulate, to the good of your garden and wildlife.  I have found composted bark and  wood chippings completely satisfactory  - despite dire predictions by some pundits.  The bark in particular appears to be disliked by slugs, adding to its charms.  Of course I do feed roses and I'm quite keen on that myccorrhiza, but without any personal proof.  Just belief I suppose.  Here's a garden planted 2 years ago (not the trees of course), directly into heavy, rubbley soil and mulched with wood-chip.

I am now economically and effortlessly summing up my whole garden at the beginning of the month of September with this photograph of acidenthera murieliae.

Look how all the other messes and mistakes have fallen away!  I love the way you get that sometimes in magazines or on gardening TV programmes.  In fact it's not that easy a plant, preferring an earlier start and a warmer winter than we can provide and producing a lot of tall bright green leafage which needs a bit of management.  So I've broken my own third rule here.  But it smells delicious.  A "dream of gentle beauty" as Beth Chatto had in her catalogue about Trollius Alabaster - which was always too lovely for this world.

For apparently effortless economy, try Man In The Long Black Coat (Oh Mercy version).  Here is an entire Gothic mystery where two pieces of clothing populate a drama.  That "soft cotton dress on the line hanging dry"!  What more is there to say - she was as lovely as an acidenthera.  With the crickets in the background you know where we are and the dress is dry so you know that time has passed.  Perhaps her name was Marie Celeste.  As I listen, I have a sense of utterly conscious control of the material, nothing lost or forgotten.  It's a Deep South Wuthering Heights, summed up in two words - "She gone". 

Another salient point arises in the song "There are no mistakes in life, some people say".  Well now, you could follow that with the word "Discuss".  A person who used to line-dry soft cotton dresses may well have gone to hell which could easily count as some sort of major error.  We gardeners generally make smaller, more retrievable misjudgements, which nature will kindly cover over with sycamore and brambles when neglect sets in.  But without doubt it's best to try and capture the knowledge as they say these days.  Mistakes are also revelations.

Here's one - a biggish plant, tree or shrub, growing well, even quickly and healthily, suddenly loses the will to live, dries up and dies.  Dig it out, have a look at the roots.  How many times have I seen this, they're all twisted round each other and self-strangulation is under way.

I have learnt to ignore the rule not to disturb roots too much when planting.  It is generally astonishing how much disturbance they will take - treat 'em all like roses, prune them back, separate them out, spread them wide.  Get right in there and see whether they're creating a great, costive, twisting mess - the nursery will have repotted them , you don't know what crimes are going on in there.  I'd rather have them in the soil they're going to grow in anyway so it's a chance to acquaint them properly with their future environment.  Rather than leave them in a pot of peat in a sea of clay, that is.

Best to give our plant beauties a fighting chance against the man in the long black coat.  If you try leaving the bulbs of acidenthera in the garden over winter "They gone" will be their epitaph. True enough the lost laundress of Man in the Long Black Coat may have chosen to go out and search for her risky escape.  Perhaps her roots weren't happy, something was being strangled.  Perhaps it was something to do with that person in the background beating the dead horse.  He clearly didn't put enough effort in, in the right way, where it was needed.