Thursday, 12 January 2012

Looking for Comfort - When The Deal Goes Down

Over the years, various friends have asked, in concerned and puzzled tones "But what do you find to do in the garden in winter?" and I have found it hard to answer.  Running about with oil and sharpeners for my tools, tidying the shed, disinfecting the greenhouse, dismantling and remantling the mower - these are excellent ideas.  But you can imagine already, they're not what I do.  I'm not that practical. Me and my equipment, we have a non-aggression pact.  I use it, and it struggles on.

But I'm ready to answer.  This winter is barely winter however - we have shot from October to late March without pausing for lowered temperatures.  People keep saying lugubriously "We shall pay for it later".  I think we will,  but not in the way they expect.  Climate change is a huge preoccupation for me, helpless and eaten up by anxiety, I'm in a hyper-vigilant state, tensely checking whether my breath shows in the air - and it almost never does.  So I need help from gardening.

Contact with plants is a prop and a stay, an even keel, a hope and a promise.  It doesn't always work in drought or high winds, when the stress they suffer is painful.  But a warm winter shows no teeth; we're suffering from excessive comfort.

So I'm mostly to be found bent over or kneeling,  extracting the bad, expanding the good, removing what will prevent or disfigure new spring growth, checking for seedlings, disrupting excessive growth, making space, filling space.  I'm restoring edges, spreading leaf-mould and compost, firming unsteady plants and replanting according to my own wild wishes.

Winter is the time to search for promises of beauty and try to be of service to what will come, balancing the human longing for order against the needs of nature.  That is to say, time for a good tidy up, secateurs, plastic rake and broom at the ready.  This isn't the moment to talk of the building site at the end of the garden and all the displaced plants.  We'll deal with the possible, not the entirely out of our hands.

The scent of sarcococca fills the garden.  These are wonderful plants, growing in every situation I have tried, a neat background in summer and a lusty outpouring of perfume in January.

Here's one, near our old gate. 

Now is the time to start working on ferns if you have them.  Or perhaps you've considered them uninteresting, polysyllabically confusing and over-similar.  I hope to persuade you of an unexpected charm, their rusty knuckles.  By this I mean that many of them benefit from being cut back to their tightly curled bases, every tatty end neatly trimmed. 

You will be left with a sculptural bronze heap, from which new fronds will emerge in April, pristine and thrilling as they unwind and stretch.  I saw a magnificent example at Great Dixter last year,  three times the size of the one I show, rising over a foot from the ground and in a proud position.  It was a natural art-work, created with oriental care and, probably, sharp pointed scissors.  I firmly believe it to have been a polystichum setiferum, but you know how these things are. 

Here's another - a polypodium I think, before and after.

Don't give all ferns the same treatment at the same time however, unless it really makes sense to you. Most polystichums are ready as soon as they begin to brown from the inside.  Matteuccia strutheropteris is desperate for attention (and for curbing if it's running about hysterically) but orangey dryopteris erythosora can be left until much later; I'm not sure it offers such a nice base anyway.  But last years fronds go more lemony and can glisten against the darkness.  Wait till it starts to look messy, or you really need the space.

Truly evergreen ferns, such as aspleniums, blechnums and cyrtomiums perhaps need individual fronds selecting and removing as they brown off.  I would use my eyes and hands first to get the feel of the plant and how it grows.  The benefit of the treatment I suggest is that it's a lot easier to remove the old guard before the new opens, when you will undoubtedly cause damage.  Over time a fern will benefit, staying tight and attractive.  The erythoniums and snowdrops you have around it will have space to flower before they disappear beneath the glamour of those fronds.

In my view it's right to be careful about what you plant with ferns.  They need complementing with compliments.  Hostas don't cut it for me, see what you think.

To me, the big simple leaves defeat the structured frilly laciness, especially when they're coloured.  Asarum, ajugas, small green hostas and ivies seem more successful.   Here's another, matteuccia strutheropteris, with a comparison.

And here's one where they just look at home.

I've swamped you with photographs; and of course you need a bit of damp and shade to grow most ferns successfully.  And time.  We all need time.

I'm turning to my song now, the ferns are calming me, but I need more.  Today we're listening to When The Deal Goes Down on the album Modern Times.

Imagine you're a stately old couple gently waltzing together in a dim polished hall, or perhaps it's a parlour.  The song is a promise of sustainment in times of trouble, even the worst of troubles.  So many possibilities about who or what is the sustainer to whom, some of them multiplying as the song unfolds.  It's slow and sedate, the difficulties of life that the singer alludes to seem greater because the music is so gentle, though a bit maudlin, and the voice is so fragile.

I have to admit, one of the qualities I value in Dylan's voice is the tremendous humanity; the failings and the warmth combine in a way I find, oh what's the word, yes, comforting.  It's a comfort to feel that someone else feels the same and in this song, that's exactly what I hear for "We all wear the same thorny crown."  We're all in the same boat, we'll all be there "when the deal goes down", the singer too.  How comforting is that? A real question perhaps.

The singer does not mention tidying up a garden as way of dealing with fear and anxiety.  It's likely that a more spiritual solution is closer.  Extraordinarily, he does point out that his prayers rise up like clouds in the air - the very clouds I've been longing to see, in the frost I've been longing to feel.  He regrets words he has said and hurts he has committed.  He comments on transient joys and their ultimate valuelessness.  Maybe excessive plant love comes under the heading of transient joys; he mentions a rose that pokes through his clothes, but we all know what roses mean.

Whereas I really mean plants of course.  And there are a few more vegetable loves to mention at this time, especially if the spring is to continue rushing headlong at us, breaking flowers untimely through the ground.
So on to hellebores and epimediums.

The pictures above show a fern and a hellebore before and after being readied for spring.  I do the same thing to epimediums always removing the old leaves before the flowers come through. 

If you've ever seen hellebores smitten by that black spotty fungus, which makes them pointless and ugly, you would accept the need for this, because it genuinely helps clean them up.  Just cut the leaf stems to the ground, leaving  the flowers ready to come through in good condition.  Epimediums don't get the spots, but if you are to enjoy the flowers and attractive leaves throughout the rest of the year, you should cut the old batch off before the fragile flowers stems lengthen.  It's very difficult to sort them out once those delicate heads are rising. You can leave them, feel free, but they'll look tired and tarnished from the get-go, as they do in the first picture on the lower right.

And the tenderness of those unfurling flowers brings me back to the song.  Dylan gives us a lovely phrase

                                       "More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours
                                        that keep us so tightly bound"

The hesitant melody slightly confuses the sense, which needs to reverse - these precious hours are more frailer than the flowers.  And we are tightly bound to that doubly intensified frailty: it is such a true contradiction, for we cannot argue with time and it passes like dropping petals.  Like these precocious camellias, which will pass early, as they have opened early. 

Were there a bargain to be had I would sacrifice my camellias to some real winter, without regret.  But the deals with the earth have been done, stored carbon rises in the air.   I seek comfort, but not at the expense of knowing that the deal is indeed going down.

But let's lift our hearts together and end with an exquisite fern, taken at Rosemoor, a magnificent paradise of plants in North Devon UK, an RHS garden of delights.  It's pteris wallichiana and was new to me.  I don't long for it, it would not survive here, but it's a triumph of elegance.


  1. We have a lot of ferns in my backyard in the summer. Thank you for this. It may help me to figure out what is going on back there. And use it to my advantage when planting this spring. I am in upstate NY and this is a new yard for us.

    Love your words and your Dylan!

  2. I, too, worry about climate change, especially in this warm winter; and I hate that feeling of powerlessness when others (e.g., our government leaders and legislators) don't take it seriously. I do try to comfort myself by thinking about the plants that are not cold hardy here that I'll be able to grow when my garden is warmer. -Jean

  3. Well, take heart. None of us is powerless in the face of climate change. Responding to climate change needs both individual actions (use less energy, waste less, reuse and recycle more) and political, group actions (lobby, send emails, talk to everyone, not just those who agree with you). Take comfort formt he techniucal press (read Chemical & Engineering News, from the American Chemical Society).

  4. Caregiver, sorting out a lot of ferns sounds like fun, I quite envy such a job.
    Thanks for your comments, Hooray for Dylan!

    Jean, It's certainly a toxic combination, worry and helplessness. Escape is tempting and sometimes helps. So far some of us have just been beneficiaries I suppose, the boat is not the same for everyone, but eventually, eventually....

    David, thank you. I AM grateful so many people are working hard to help us change. That is a comfort, it's true.

  5. you describe the way I am feeling absolutely,a longing for spring but astrange sense of skipping time, as if I had lost a season somewhere along the line. I have a saraccoca but it is tiny, only 2 flowering stems as yet but I am optimistic.Like you I need to be out there, if only for a few minuits, to feel connected and soothed, I have seen winters like this before and am trying to see the good, things are surviving I thought I would lose(and still might)but it is what it is, the charm of gardening is dealing with 'what is' for the big picture, we do what we can.Keep writing, it is the highpoint of my week.

  6. Jenny x What a lovely comment! Absolutely right too, dealing with what is, that's how to cope with so much. Thank you, and very glad to be a highpoint.

  7. What a wonderful discovery your blog is. I came to you via Anne Wareham and am amused, moved, informed (especially about cutting back ferns, thank you) and diverted. I share your feelings about climate change and can only cope by not thinking about it too much and living as simply as I can on my high hill.

  8. Thank you elizabethm. I feed on these kind comments, from high hills or Lowlands, always so pleased to know I've touched a chord. Also delighted that Anne has mentioned me. Thanks so much

  9. Winter rest in the garden leaves a lot of seed heads and other debris. I leave the seed heads for the birds, and then later in winter I clear out the debris. I do enjoy some of the textures the debris provides. Welcome to Blotanical!

  10. Hi Sage Butterfly, thanks for your comment, yes of course, it's all good. Thanks for your welcome!