Thursday, 20 October 2011

Youth in autumn - Forever Young

The garden is like a toyshop, overflowing with intricate, sometimes bright contraptions.  Shall we play?  We shall play.

To begin with, gather your seedheads.  Of course, you could use a trug - that would be if you can find it at the back of the garage.  Why not do what I do, run haplessly back and forth, inside and out, hands full of collapsing dead flower heads and stems, papery cases, falling pods, skeletonising leaves.  Works every year.

To tell the truth, I've been gathering seeds for some months now.  I love it more than sowing them.  Nothing could be nicer than seeing them grow in spring, but you have to accommodate them, protect them and be regular with them. It all becomes like heading up a maternity ward and that doesn't quite suit my devil-may-care approach.  But gathering and sorting seeds is entirely positive.  You get the fun of marvelling at the tiny universe, the joys of the hunt, the satisfaction of the gold-digger and the total absorption in the task.   And then you pack it all safely away.  Everyone should do it.

Here's today's haul.  Before much cleaning and sorting, some done during collection.

There are all sorts of tricks you can use for the more elusive seed.  Some, that don't spring easily from their wiry little catapults and cups (hardy geraniums, erodiums etc), can be placed, casing and all, in a paper bag.  They will dry out in there, spring forth and gather at the bottom of the bag.  Sadly, a lot of seeds would probably do the same from other formats.  That would deprive you of the enjoyment of separating them from the chaff yourself, but I mention it because it would work very well as a first step with nearly everything, should you be so bone-headed as not to want to join me in my childish fun.

You can mess about with sieves or try a little gentle huffing and puffing.  You will find other ways of hulling different seeds as you go. Sometimes the fun is just in seeing the immaculate cleverness of the receptacles, their secret inner compartments and their award-winning designs.

Here's the final product, all dross removed.  I won't tell you what they all are as it would be boring, but they're mostly easy perennials, including a hemerocallis, a euphorbia,  a digitalis, a malva and a couple of asters.


The biggest seeds are from a rather splendid short strong acanthus.  Normally I propagate this simply by moving it.  Then I have it in two places - where I've moved it from and where I move it to.  The same is true of oriental poppies.  Quick and easy root cuttings.  I'm going to try seeds of the acanthus this year because they're so shiny and because I need them in a garden abroad.

At this point a photograph of the exact acanthus would have been perfect.  You could have seen its large,  short, tight-packed inflorescences, its strong colour and its proportionate sculpted leaves.   But I don't seem to have one so here is the regular acanthus mollis latifolius, taken in St Just churchyard in Falmouth.  Much taller, less good as a garden plant as it can fall about drunkenly, but so good with the stone.  The whole side of the church is full of them, a perfect example of unity and conviction, with no overbearing designiness.

So to sum up, collect your seeds, clean them, dry them, pop them in small labelled envelopes, keep them dry and cold, sow them in spring.  There are exceptions which should be sown immediately.  Try Chiltern seeds leaflet  which you get free if you buy seeds from them, for detailed instruction.   However the leaflet doesn't mention the vital steps of loving examination, riffling through them with the fingers, comparing the finishes and sensing the weight and intensity of  concentrated new life.  Don't miss these out, it's like haberdashery or stationery; clean clever little treasures.

Over to another playground full of more little packages.  Bulbs need to be planted around now.  Daffodils should have gone in already, tulips can hang about till Christmas.  All those lesser known others, small blue jobs mainly, scillas, pushkinias, chionodoxas, anemone blanda etc. what are they if not fun?  Each bulb has a flower curled inside it, ready to pop out in spring, all it needs is a little sleeping chamber in the earth and a good night's rest.

Never hesitate to plant these amongst your deciduous shrubs and perennials.  All you're doing (deep breath) is stealing March on time.  They are entirely trouble-free.  As are some crocuses, particularly sieberi tricolor in my experience.  Other favourites are the pale pink chionodoxa untruthfully called Pink Giant and the taller, later, tulipa clusiana Cynthia.

Your only dilemma with these neat little parcels is to know whether to spread them out or cluster them together as you plant.  A nearby child might advise you.  You can't lose after all, they'll expand into clumps over time, pull themselves to the right depth and turn themselves over if necessary.  So expense is really the only question and from Peter Nyssen they're very good value, though it may be a bit late to order now.

So has Dylan ever sung about such innocent pleasures?  Of course he has.  And a very well-known song too, one that is pretty close to perfection, being both simple and utterly complete.  It's Forever Young, and you get a double dose on the album Planet Waves, a slow version and a quick, so that you can see the slow one is probably better, but you don't end up thinking he's gone totally slushy.

Everything is here in the song if you want your child to be a valuable and capable adult.  It's there for adults as well, if they want to be valuable too, and youthful as they age.  Three perfect verses, encompassing attitudes, relationships and self-reliance.  It is hard to think of any essential strength or virtue that has been left out.  My favourite line is "may you always see the lights surrounding you."  Beautifully and economically put, I cannot think of a more effective route to contentment. Lights that both guide and cheer you.

Here's another collection of seeds in their containers. The big  long one is called Pink Banana and is the size, weight and colour of some babies.  Unnerving really, especially as it is much more edible than the regular pumpkin.  Sweeter and more succulent.

And the lines from the song that link directly with the garden in autumn?  There are two, the first, which could sound like an elderly platitude, is obvious - "may your hands always be busy". Well that deals with a multitude of despairing moments, especially when you're collecting the seeds and fruits of autumn. The true therapy of gardening has something to do with pottering about and fiddling with stuff.  Time is snatched from the coming dark and cold, to play with the toys of nature, to store up the youth, to remember the child in oneself.

Now for the second gardening line - "And may you stay forever young", repeated and repeated, carrying and completing every verse.  Such  lengthy notes on "stay" and "young", and such a dangerous commitment to that last note.  I'm no singer myself, and could not carry a tune in any receptacle, so perhaps the tension I feel as he launches onto it is misplaced.  And then I feel relief as his voice twiddles down a descent, only to worry again as the next long note becomes inevitable.  Finally, listen to how he sings "shift".  Obvious but necessary, the ground seems to heave and flex.

The song is sentimental and unsophisticated, if you were wanting dissidence and raging surrealism.  But it is jolly good.  And I hope we're all convinced that it's the very thing to play as you open your bulb packets and arrange your seeds into a pretty and tempting arsenal. Here are some more, not for sowing, just for decoration.  Excuse the shine from the glass, I saw it in a gallery somewhere, and seized it, unattributably.  My hands don't need to be that busy.

Collecting and storing seeds has none of the danger, either of singing the wrong note, or of growing through childhood and puberty into an adult.  That's how gardening lets us be young when we're old.  Strange and ironic that when we were younger it seemed like a middle-aged  pastime.  Not to me, I was really quite old then.  And I'm younger now of course,  like all who garden and all who know that other song.


  1. What a strange and wonderful idea for a blog: gardening + Dylan!

  2. Yes, but does it work?

  3. Yes, yes, yes, so much to interest,fresh thoughts, a nice change from 'now plant this' or 'time to do that' which gives me anxiety, like 'shape up for Xmas' must go and re-assess my beach garden now!