Thursday, 29 December 2011

Tearing Up - You're a Big Girl Now

I have devised a new practical education course for gardeners.  Unfortunately, all it needs for true benefit is that time should run backwards.  Pull apart a piece of planting you did 10 years ago and you'll learn an awful lot which I'm sure will help you when you come to plant that same piece of ground.

I have this week unmade my own bed, deconstructed my own plot, picked apart my own underplanting, wrenched out and destroyed shrubs and trees. It has taught me more than I expected and cost me more pain.  I see that my educational plan is also a perfect horticultural curse- may you dismantle your own garden. 

It has been hard, distressing work - despite the assistance of a small digger and quite a few helpers.  We have been able to replant a lot of the bigger items, to form a screen between ourselves and our neighbours, but I insist on the right to feel sorry for myself.  All pleasures should be given a chance.

Here you see the trunk of the mulberry.  We're just beginning the work here, moving the smaller stuff.

You may recall that the purpose of this ghastly exercise is not just to teach me a lesson, or offer me a go at a perverse enjoyment.  We are clearing the lower half of the garden ready to build a small house on it, with a planted courtyard mainly for winter use. It's about 70 square metres, and wedge-shaped.  That's about one of the most difficult shapes to render inviting when the pointed end is furthest from the house.  There was my first error, not my fault at all.

But I crammed it so full, of so many different things.  In the centre of the pointed end they mostly had an orangey tone, to their stems, flowers, leaves or trunks. There was a bit of bluey purple from catalpa erubescens purpurea and hebe Amy. The most orange was from chionochloa rubra, epimedium Ellen Wilmott, oriental poppies, crocosmias George Davison and masonorum, cornus Midwinter Fire, viburnum Onondaga, gold roses and the beautiful bright multistems of luma apiculata, shaped that way over 15 years.
Here it was in March this year.

Bronze fennel and chrysanthemums, anthriscus Ravenswing, iris innominata, purple leaved celandine Brazen Hussy and various species tulips joined in, along with aster Calliope with its purplish stems and leaves and the double hemerocallis for solid packaging.

The whole collection went pretty well together, there was a harmony about the colouring and the evergreens were a raphiolepsis umbellata and three pittosporums, one big, rounded and subtly variegated, resulting in a strong greyish presence to point up the oranges.  The oldish, but small apple tree started me off in that direction, showing an orangey glow to its trunk one year, which then promptly disappeared.  Its apples were always a bright pretty red, fairly tasteless I'm afraid.  I was very fond of it.

In the photograph above, you can see the white flowers of heptacodium miconoides below the apples.

Sometimes as with the big black mulberry tree, you only become aware of an underlying orange tone when you see the roots - here they are, barked like branches above ground, and the strongest orange with purple flakes. Unexpected.  Worse than that, the roots were hugely extensive and very shallow.  Enormous amounts were hacked off by the digger - there was no root ball, no evident fibrous feeder roots at any point.

The mulberry is in its new home next door. You can see it at the very back in the photograph at the end of this piece.  I don't know if you can imagine how I can barely look at it as I pass it there, so close to my garden and yet so stonily unlike where it's come from.  I can't imagine it will live.  I feel utterly, repellently, disloyal.  The luma apiculata suffered in the same way and has gone to another garden, where at least I can't see it.  Enough already.

So now is the right moment to turn to our Dylan song, just when I've given myself a good kicking.  It's one I consider truly great - You're a Big Girl Now - and it's in a version which I consider quite shatteringly brilliant - the one on Hard Rain, the live album.  No more superlatives - they can be wearing, so we'll take them as read.

The thing about this song is that it's about pain that stops and starts.  The arrangement does too, it's like slowly pulling off a plaster, or, to take it to surreal limits, wrenching off your own arm.  Or it's like dragging a big plant out of the ground.  It's about splitting and separating.  Ending a relationship because there's no other way, yearning for there to be another way, regretting past happiness, longing for it all to feel the same, knowing it can't - it's honest, even to the point of acknowledging the competitiveness between parting partners about who's going to be OK.

To me, the trajectory of the song is straightforward.  Man is told by long term partner (or "wife") that they must part, she's had enough. Man is shocked to the core - he was dissatisfied and unhappy but believed relationship was forever and that he was the one resisting ending it.  This is an "extreme...... change in the weather".  He realises what he's contributed to it and grapples with his grief, sadly suggesting alternatives and reasons to stay together.

The title may have worried women who heard it I suppose.  Could it be patronising?  Or sarcastic? To me, the words become absolutely empty as the song proceeds, meaning nothing more than that they are lost to each other. 

I imagine most people have experienced this end of the line feeling about someone who has been central to their lives and who they thought would always be there.  That awful feeling of being carried on a tide you cannot stop, you're part of the inevitability.  As you count the cost and regret the price, you know your own sad acts of accountancy prove the loss must happen. It's a devastation described in the acutest, most accurate detail.

I chose this song for my garden unmaking experience because of the wrenching, yanking, breaking feeling.  Plus the blameworthy inevitability.  There's no sense of relief yet, although I think there should be; the overplanting meant the plants needed release.

I know that mulberry trees can be propagated with "truncheons".  Which I think are long straight unbranched branches, stuck in the ground.  My hope is that this means there's a chance the tree will be able to regenerate roots, but I have no real faith in it. I find it hard to believe any of the bigger plants will survive, the trauma has been so great and they were all so unprepared. Here's where we are now.

An awful thing to find out was that deep down - at about 60 centimetres, the reasonable topsoil gave way to the hardest and driest of clayey, stony pans.  This dryness was startling, we blithely assume there is moisture deep down but it was more like desert.

This area is really suffering from a lack of real rain, though there has been drizzle and dampness, illusory irrigation for the very top layers.  Heavy planting traps moisture in those layers, but the roots had not gone down, the plants were all struggling along together, woven and interlaced.   It's only with the deconstruction that the full complexity of the entire wobbly edifice became clear.

As you would expect, the song is a bit like that too, even as he suggests in the last verse that they might be able to change, you know it's hopeless, despite the entangled roots, they must rip apart.   It wouldn't have been hopeless in my garden but there would have been such poor growth in the future that I would have been forced  to make sacrificial changes.

It's surprising, how like investing yourself in a supposedly permanent relationship garden-making is.  And now, on a slightly flippant note, I'm even finding my plants in somebody else's room!  Oh please let them be happy!

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