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.

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