The season of elegies is upon us. We have had balmy temperatures by day, still air and little rain so the British of the South East have felt the warm hands of a colourful autumn. We have lacked celestial blue skies and the sweet kick of frost. Nonetheless, it's felt like a blessing. Never unmitigated though - we're only human, not mad, and there's much to worry about.
Autumn is a season of mysteries and confusion. Do we love it? That yearning thing that we all feel as the days shorten, loss mixed with longing for future happy fireside evenings. That thing about colour and texture: warm knits in scarlet and gold, snuggling, a good long sleep. That's all going on, but there are plenty of tasks to do in the garden and they will give you an excellent feeling of merit and deservedness at the end of the day.
The mysteries of autumn in the garden are these:
Should I cut down all the perennials that look so messy?
Why is it all so colourful?
Is this birth or death?
The song we will listen to as we think about the season is The Changing of The Guards on the album Street Legal. It's full of other mysteries.
What on earth is he on about?
What are those girls doing there?
Is it irritating, to repeat the last few words of every line?
Is this birth or death?
Let's dispose of that last one. In both season and song it's neither birth nor death; it's change. The main mystery is what's going to happen next. Will it be a bad winter? Where's he going with this? We're getting ready for revelations all round.
Remembrance of autumns past is sharp, soft and sweet. As a child, walking across the town with my sister to a shared Bonfire Night (November 5th for transatlantics), I remember countless front gardens where the only flower left blooming, for weeks beforehand, was a tall goldy chrysanthemum. I say goldy because it opened from dark tan buds, flowered in decreasing harvest colours, ending fully blown and lemon-coloured, wide open. Elaborate for a daisy, simple for a chrysanthemum. November 5th was roughly its final hurrah every year. And I never see it any more.
I thought I'd tracked it down a couple of years ago, requested a bit and planted it. It didn't understand what it meant to me and disappeared. As a child, I thought it was indestructible, a wonderful flower that carried on when all green had gone and other blooms could not be imagined. Gardens by then were mainly brown, apart from the privet and some mangy grass. Otherwise it was frosty breath, mittens, scratchy woolly hats and the sad bewilderments of childhood. An aromatic bitterness hung in the air.
What this proves to me is that autumn is not what it was - our gardens are still full of blossoms amongst the lurid leaves. They do this now nearly every year, unless of course we get the exact opposite, heavy snowfalls before the leaves are off. But it is nearly Bonfire Night and the chrysanthemum of beloved memory would make little impact, there is so much colour from late flowers and turning leaves together. Not an easy conjunction, more of a collapsing riot.
I'm rather fond of this next little chrysanthemum. It's utterly reliable in my garden, turning up every year with small sparkly blooms, cutting through some of the rusts and bronzes. It spreads quietly but firmly, nearly unnoticed till the time comes when it can clear its throat and makes its remarks. It cares nothing for mildew or slugs and its name is Nantyderry Sunshine.
Let's have a go at the autumn conundrums I started with. Cutting things down, or not - well, there are things it is beyond me to leave. Phlox springs to mind, it becomes the picture of dejection, hanging on to its old leaves which look like very old brown flannels. Crocosmia Lucifer, lying about on top of things, old peony leaves, which need actual cutting off, big old acanthus spikes. Japanese anemones. Big persicarias. Some I don't want seeding around, like alchemilla, which may have bloomed again, and lots of geraniums. Some just make me miserable, quite wrongly, but I must have my own way.
For some it is possible that there's a wildlife which would be pleased to have a supply of damp and shattered seed-heads, but I don't always know about it. Give me a specific detail and I may be able to access some ancient radical non-interventionist DNA. A friend told me blue-tits eat buddleia seeds the other day. OK, I'll leave them as long as I can bear, and I'll suffer the little buddleia seedlings to come to me, where I shall slaughter them.
Another point about cutting down perennials - it is my experience that many people cut too high. If you're going to cut down a phlox for example, don't leave a forest of stubs, it looks awful and they'll harden and jab you in the spring. Cut down as far as you can go, neatly and assuredly. Don't cut, chop or deadhead into the middle of a stem. Always go back to a junction with other shoots, stems or branches, even just the next leaf junction.
Of course many people nowadays do something completely different, whacking along with a hedge-cutter in the spring. But that's not really for the smaller garden. I sentimentally think I would regret the lost intimacies.
So here's my game-plan: leave as much as you can as long as you can, be selective. Picking out the messiest may make other things look more palatable, choose the worst first.
Consider the lily beetles, they love a lot of cover and if you fiddle around, amongst and under plants, where lilies perhaps were, you may find huge numbers of the small scarlet soldiers, so keep your eyes open. Remove them and perennial seedling weeds at the same time. I can't resist pointing out that in the Dylan song, whoever he's addressing has to "get brave for elimination". Lily beetles look as though they've done just that, looking both smart and nonchalant.
I wanted a photograph here, of the vaunted lily beetle. Rushed out, scrabbled around - nothing, not one. But there were battallions a week or two ago around the dying lily stems in another garden. So, yet another mystery, worse, an enigma of impossibility. They'll be there next year, I'd stake my own life.
So, I've laid my cards down; take them or leave them. Now let's turn to the next problematic area - why is it all so colourful? British natives mostly turn yellowish and that is the natural look for our woodlands; what we have in our parks and gardens is the hectic flush of the alien - liquidambers, acers, sumachs, cherries from Japan, magenta spindles.
To be honest, it's all a bit much. I love to stand beneath a yellow tree, feeling that unearthly glow in my bones, but these elaborate oranges and crimsons almost knock the stuffing out of me. I understand they're to do with toxins and sugars left as the leaf is cut off from its hydraulic source of supply, that's fine, but why so bright and pretty? I cannot understand the greater evolutionary purpose.
It's almost like they're inarticulately semaphoring a message, an urgent tree message, imperceptible to the human understanding. Here's one - not waving but................what?
And this is what ties the season and the song together. Bright colours vying for attention in the landscape, bright competing images in the song. A feeling of urgency and a desire to transmit something. But the message is corrupted; it cannot be read or understood.
Try and see what you can hear the song. Every parameter shifts: characters, places, events, times, nothing stays the same from verse to verse. OK, it seems there's something about a series of devastating events and betrayals, something else about fortune-telling and a kind of final having out of things, some kind of plain-speaking. But we absolutely don't know what all this is about, what happens, what conclusions to draw or what will happen in consequence.
And so it goes on. Dylan's voice is forceful and confident. The rhythmic push of the song is insistent. The gospelly repetitions of the last phrases intensify the sense of conviction, although hovering on the edge of something else - is it eccentric to be so certain about the ends of disconnected sentences? It all seems so clear in a totally foggy way. Flares on a battlefield, hot-coloured trees in a landscape, urgent gesturing and calling.
There are words or rhymes that stand out, falling into sharp focus for a few seconds. One depends on a rhyme; "ditches" and "stitches still mending". In my mind that's a scene of near horror, the protagonist struggling to his feet, out of a ditch, recent surgery on his wounds. In another, beginning a verse out of nowhere, "'Gentlemen' he said 'I don't need your organization, I've shined your shoes'" and we're slightly startled by the immediacy of the picture. You can hear a Civil War resonance, the rebellion of the underdog and the entrance of a Messiah figure all in a few words.
The sound of this song is unexpected. It swings along but it's not cheerful. Something keeps pulling you into the next line - something desirous and emphatic. It's not elegaic, it's about courage and change. Cruel death surrenders in the penultimate line.
Perhaps that's a good way to look at autumn too. May we have courage for the winter to come, may we bravely continue to garden. May we change everything, if we must, as the hectic colours fade and the sky darkens. "Peace and tranquillity will come". Let's hope, bravely, that that is so, in all our gardens and cities, in all our countries.