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.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Mastery, mystery - Copper Kettle

Funny thing about conifers.  They have a slightly humanoid aspect.  When they're big they lower over you like pointy giants, when they're small they tend to "people" a garden and if you get a lot of them they look a bit like a small crowd.  I think many of them are problematic in gardens, not just because of fashion but because there is something intransigent  in the strength of their shapes and colours.

Here they look a bit like an advancing army.  And yet it's Scone in Scotland, where they have both the space and the informality to accommodate their magnificent specimens of Douglas fir.  But I don't feel tempted to wander amongst them.  I think it's the regularity of their branch-spacing as well as the darkness and pointiness.

It's peculiar that a plant with such useful qualities of architecture and personality, evergreen, easy, quick and tough, can impose so heavily on the landscape as to leave us feeling dominated and depressed.  Perhaps many of you are shouting "Speak for yourself".  Well, that's quite fair.

One of the things I wanted to do in this post is draw your attention, or redraw it, to one of the most beautiful songs Dylan ever sang and never wrote.  It's Copper Kettle, on the despised Self Portrait album.  It is the perfect camping song.  I feel  the sun on my face and the bite of the mosquito, discomfort and pleasure mixed.  Suddenly I'm a rufty-tufty semi-outlaw, glorying in the filling of jugs with home-made whiskey, loving the moonlight, and the firelight, chatting about the burning qualities of different woods.  The song gets you there  very quickly, you can hear the dripping of the amber liquid even before it starts.

Pines I think, and no camping debris
The only person I really ever knew well who had been brought up in this harsh woodland way of life was from a family who made their living by charcoal- burning.  He was apparently and unnervingly deferential but actually hard as nails.  Would rip out his own teeth with pliers, and be at work on a scrapyard within the hour.  Strangely, amongst the charm of the evocation in the song, you also hear the relentless toughness.

Now listen to how Dylan sings the word "juniper" - the first time anyway.  He does it with a mixture of hilarity and benevolence.  It is indeed a beautiful word, as Donovan reminded us later.  Botanically, as juniperus, one never knows which syllable to stress, but juniper has every quality a lovely word needs; rhythm, attack and the bonus of enfolding a couple of classical gods.

This name almost transcends what is essentially such a wild and scruffy plant.  And a bit of a chameleon too, differing in its mature and juvenile foliage, endlessly producing new versions of itself, looking very different too according to the conditions it finds itself in.  And it produces those other-worldly berries, which turn out to be cones which have become berries, despite their own spikey coniferous little hearts. Aromatic fruitlets, that's what they are.

I did a little research to see which kinds would be best for a home-grown source of those very fruitlets, but lost heart in the midst of irrelevant detail  and the inability to tell one conifer from another.  This is  particularly noticeable once you get to the selected garden forms, bright yellow, blue-green, flat, thin and pointy, swirly. After a bit you feel you've got lost in a vast old peoples home, full of gaudily dressed residents.  Introductions have got you nowhere, they're all different, but all somehow the same.  That's a little harsh, but we'll all get there, so I allow myself.

The overweeningness of individual conifers is specifically a gardening phenomenon, for in the wild or in those awful plantations, the sense of mass makes it all feel different.  And at least we're not responsible.  In British gardens, best stick to Scots pine, yew and Italian cypresses or other very slim conifers.  Cupressus sempervirens Totem is a good one and a little hardier.  But maybe it will end up a giant and I will have to eat my own words.

The garden above is Plas Brondanw,  Gwynedd, North Wales, the home of Clough Williams Ellis, who designed Portmerion.  Interesting differences in style from that extraordinary place.

Yew is itself a strange paradox, the most malleable and flexible of plants, yet also the most architectural and formal. We're totally in control so we use it to shape, divide and define. It's an uncompromising colour and does not seem to have developed dozens of princeling sports which people would be tempted to let grow freely.  Thank goodness.  Be a little careful of the Irish yew, which becomes a tight inky block of uprights in the landscape as it ages.  And it thickens unacceptably, the opposite of the slenderness it first meant to embody.

To me, Gresgarth Hall, an otherwise mostly stupendous garden, suffers from a multiplicity of disruptive Irish yews.   Some surprise me, being quite recently planted. I can see the big ones would be hard to remove, but that's true of all really large conifers.  We are vanquished by them, it's hard to imagine having that space again and the screening provided in small gardens seems indispensable, even when they've shot off into the sky.  The Irish yew is not used for that purpose, its slimmer upright form when young is a subsitute for the Italian cypress in cold areas.  But do think again if considering it, for those who will follow us.

A lot of our submissiveness towards the suburban conifer has to do with too many quick-growers (chamaecyparis fletcheri, lawsonii etc.) having been planted 30 or 40 years ago, when they seemed so satisfactory and multi-purpose.  It seems to be easier to take out a whole screen of them than the occasional enormous individual.  Look around at the gardens near you and imagine fewer of those strong, jaggedy shapes, replaced perhaps with puffier, gentler trees.  I think it would be nicer, nearly always.  But do not feel criticised.  This is but a thought, not a fatwah. And I too have done the same thing; left two conifers at either end of a row, because they seemed so intrinsic to the garden's privacy.  Holly or holm oak, that's what I should have done.  Or phillyrea latifolia, beautiful and too little known.

So, we gardeners, so bent on our own pleasure, have underestimated the conifer on the whole.  Like addicts, we have enjoyed the sense of mastery as we, or our parents, first used them to achieve our own purposes.  Our tolerance has grown, and we haven't realised, they've defeated us. Poor little artist cultivators, our gardens are governed by dinosaur cuckoos.  

The owner of the next garden has been defeated, but doesn't yet realise it.  And is still planting other conifers.

The achievement of mastery (or mistery - its female equivalent), is a significant driver of human behaviour.  To surmount the odds boosts us at the deepest level.  Often the very next thing we do is look for another set of odds to surmount.  On Copper Kettle I think you can hear Dylan rejoicing in his own ability to nail the song and his triumphant happiness illuminates it along with the moonlight.

Ironic that the song itself is about such a hard life, for which the family's refusal to pay tax on the whiskey since 1792 is victorious recompense.  I hope you will listen to it if you don't know it.  Just so you know Dylan can sing.

Here is a picture of Innisfree in Milbrook, New York - a supremely beautiful garden round a lake, every element manicured and considered.  So this conifer must have been deemed acceptable. 

I turn to more mastery.  Russell Page could be called the doyenne of garden designers if I had a really clear idea of what a doyenne was.  Well anyway, he's very grand, designed an enormous number of grand gardens for rich landowners in many parts of the world earlier last century, and wrote a wonderful, much-admired book called The Education of a Gardener.  It's quite a read, dense with experience and accumulated knowledge, not much quoted these days perhaps, but I never pick it up without becoming absorbed in his thinking and ability to extract the essence of a garden design issue.  So I turned to him on conifers, wanting a little masterful support for my views, and was delighted to find this;

         " I find many of the hardy cypresses (he means chamaecyparis species) extremely hard to place in the garden.  I know them to be valuable as a windbreak and useful as a background; but their spikes break the skyline into such ungainly silhouettes that they seem to me only tolerable when growing amongst other trees at least as high as themselves.  Like spruce and fir, they too may well be impressive in mass in their native forests, but I can seldom recall seeing a garden improved by their presence."

And now for the coup de grace;

         "Taste varies in gardens as in most other matters.  I can respect another's predilection for them without understanding it.  I hope that one day I will see them successfully used."
And here's a final photograph, following Mr Page's strictures on fountains in flower gardens, which he thought a bit much - "like a wedding cake waltzing"

But, you know what, I think I can cope with the flowers and the fountains.  It's in the South of France after all.  What disturbs me more is those two blue cedars in the background, which even have the cheek to differ rather radically from each other.  There's a private war for mastery going on out there.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The real mundane - Highlands

OK, time to break it to you.  Not all gardening is enjoyable.   Here's a bit I don't enjoy but require myself to do, not in a self-flagellating way, more as another way of stepping onwards.  It is time to Take The Cuttings.

A pall of ennui, possibly even accidie, drops over me even as I say these words.  I know I waxed reasonably enthusiastic back in October when talking about Christopher Lloyd, but that was when I was younger.  Now it's all just part of the same old same old, a rat-race, a cage.  Nothing matters much to me anymore you see.  There's nothing special about taking cuttings - it's just exactly what it seems to be.  No more, no less.  If I could turn back the clock maybe I could see where I went wrong and how to tell the true from the fake.  Maybe I'd know what things mean again.

So you'll be wondering why I'm getting so down about it all.  The answer is that I'm trying it on.  That is, I'm trying on the worn-out, nearly extinguished persona that Dylan explores in his song Highlands.  He's not completely wrong when it comes to this particular gardening practice. You know those bits on gardening television programmes when they start to take cuttings?  That's when I run out of the room.  I'd rather take them myself than watch someone else going on and on about it.  But he may be overstating it when he talks about "insanity smashing up against my soul".  That seems excessive.

Because it's not complicated.  Let's sum it up as painlessly as possible, reducing the matter to its basic utilitarian essence.  I  take a batch about now every year.  They're for economy and replacement of future possible losses.  I should think about 80 to 90 percent are successful.  Try not to yawn.  Try thinking about being somewhere else, far from here - with the twang of the arrow and the snap of the bow perhaps.

OK - a bit more commitment.   I take two types at this time of year -  first, grey and evergreen shrubs. They are the backbone of many of my plantings and gardens, quite expensive to buy and very easy.  Not easy enough to stop me feeling like a prisoner in a world of mystery though.

First step for the first type - run round the garden gathering pieces of all the things you want more of next year. Look for plants that retain their leaves and branches, however small; this is not the time to take cuttings of herbaceous perennials.  Things like hebes, santolinas, cistus, sages, shrubby phlomis and salvias, rue, helianthemums, lavenders, helichrysums, euonymus, skimmias and euphorbias.  You might need a heel on some of them.  Next - get a bucket half full of potting compost and mix it with half a bucket of grit or sharp sand.

Put the mixture in small pots, press it down well.  Now make small holes with a stick, and insert the cuttings, which you have divided into short, firm, unflowered, unbranched pieces and from which you have removed the bottom few leaves, up to the point where they will be in the soil in pot.

I hope that doesn't sound complicated.  Now all you have to do is use your fingers to really press the soil firmly round each cutting. I remember my mother stamping on peas she had just sown, looking meaningfully at me, age twelve, and pointing out "they're like children, they need resistance".  And these are the things  that cuttings need: small pots, gritty compost, and that same resistance, best achieved by pressure.  You want them to develop a conscience and then some nice little roots from the callouses that will form.

The protagonist in the song would take that conscience straight to the pawn shop, seeing no point in anything any more and thinking that as he's lost most of his humanity, he might as well sell a little more off.   Of course, I don't really believe him, the elderly, irritable person in the song is struggling with his predicament.  He's pretty fed up and nothing has any zest or flavour, now his powers are gone.  He has nowhere specific to go but walks about. There's a hypnotic riff in the background with a beat for every soft-soled step.

So water your cuttings, then put them in something transparent but closed, like a cold-frame, or an old upturned fishtank.  I tend to give them (especially the hebes) a single blast with a systemic fungicide.  Then all you need do, throughout the winter, is check them occasionally for grey mould.  If some are rotting off, pull them out and dispose of them.  In the race between rooting and rotting, the greys need to get to the finishing post reasonably quickly. If a lot are rotting off, let more air in.  Be casual, but determined.

In the spring you might be lucky enough to feel a little excitement again.  The cuttings may straighten up and look like they're taking an interest, they may start to make new shoots and leaves.  When they do, check they've made roots by upending the pot in your hand.  Then you can joyfully and thankfully, knowing it was all just a bad dream, pot them off separately and grow them on until they're big enough to plant out.

This part of my garden is full of the sort of shrub we have been increasing.  It's very winter-populated and weed-resistant.

That was a long detour after the first type of cutting, we almost had time to have an argument with a waitress in an empty restaurant.  Now we'll get back to the second kind of cutting - roses and deciduous shrubs.

 Dig a bit of sharp sand into a shaded but not densely dark spot, cut straight, unbranched unflowered pieces off the bushes, take the bottom few leaves off, stick them in the sandy bit, press down hard around, water, walk away.  Do not disturb till you see good new growth  much later next year.  Then move them to where you want them.  So simple - it's a shame not to do it really.
The advantages of taking both kinds of cuttings now, so late, is that you don't have to contend with managing the shading and watering demands, which can be super-sensitive.  They won't stand drying out.  You'll barely need to water either type, as water is not being sucked away by the sun and the air is damp.  Plus you do it all in one go and get it out of the way. 

So we're on a knife-edge, tired of gardening, perhaps, or even tired of life.  And Highlands, on the album Time Out Of Mind, is a song where the singer, regretting his age, tries to work out a way forward.  Michael Gray showed me how to love this song;  have a look at his Encyclopedia entry if you have yet to be seduced.

Highlands is, to me, relentlessly real, telling and asking how it feels to be older and barely visible, mapping the mundane seconds and moments.  The singer is hunting for an escape from his own indecisive, powerless, sorry self.  He has less and less to say, less and less to want or wish for.

Strangely enough, the way out seems to be in Scotland.  Or somewhere with Highlands.  The song is punctuated with evocations of those gentle but fair Northern lands.  Here's a picture of the Burns monument in Edinburgh, distantly behind a variegated, evergreen border - Burns of course wrote a rather trite poem called My Heart's in the Highlands.  Dylan uses his own song to call him on it.  Your heart's in the Highlands.... really?

The singer pretends to rely on hunting amongst blazing bluebells, honeysuckle and buckeyed trees to lift him out of his misanthropic depression.  He talks away for a few verses about how pointless and tasteless life is, then has another go at thinking about his Scottish escape.  It's like Nirvana, perhaps it's even a fountain of youth.

I wish I had a decent photograph of our British bluebells.  There are just a few in the photograph above, and it's not a wild setting.  They are our best wild flower, you can get sheets and sheets of them in hazel coppice woodland, blazing away and scenting the air, like low-lying celestial mist.  Nowhere else in the world has so many, we should be proud and happy every May. I'd like to believe they'd brighten the loneliest,saddest person's life, but the reality may be that that's simply not true.

Although he's mainly lost interest in life, the singer gives himself away when he goes into a restaurant.  He's clearly hoping for some sort of connection, if not something to eat.  Legs, eggs, or just a chat.  He attempts a conversation, a bit of banter would pick him up.  Look round any supermarket, you can nearly always see someone feeling the same real need.  Sometimes indeed, it might be you, or me.

There are good jokes in the song.  They're wry, sly, delicately allusive.  It's a pleasure to hear the words so clearly and pick out their multiple meanings and intricate echoes. The interaction is prickly.  It is sub-flirtatious, aslant, suspicious, challenging, and sublimely, infinitely, ordinary.   This is a song that seems slight, if long, to begin with, but with attention, turns into Godot.

This charged, fragile and unsatisfactory encounter seems to have helped.  As he steps into the busy street he seems lifted out of himself, just enough to face the truth of his own feelings.  You can follow the movements of his body, and the movements of his mind, moment by moment.  He states the truth, the party's over, he'd change places with anyone young if he could.  It's real.

He thinks again about those Highlands, but decides he doesn't quite need them now, his new eyes mean he's got them in his mind and can get to them if he needs to.  Life is mundane.  And that little chat, which asked for nothing and got nothing in the end, well it still helped, he's still alive, still walking about. My take on the song differs from Michael Gray's at this point.  I know they argued, and she gave him no comfort, but she took him for what he was and she made him feel alive.  And they discussed food, art and feminist literature - what more do you want?   Mr Gray thinks the lift at the end comes from the phrase "over the hills and far away".  It is lovely, and beautifully sung, but it's not where things change.

I didn't enjoy taking those cuttings, but I'm pleased I have.  They were mundane, but I think they'll be real.  And the song reminds me that gardening should not really be a misanthropic escape from life and other people.  We may not be brilliant, and we may not be in love, but we can always make each other feel real for a moment.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Ready for revelation - The Changing Of The Guards

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.