Friday, 16 March 2012

Persistence Comes And Goes - This Dream Of You

There's comfort in the idea that the universe is only a dream, springing forth from the dreaming brain of a sleeping god, floating through the night.  From that dream comes everything; all that we know and all that we are.  A lovely metaphor for the softer beauties of the world - I can't quite believe it's also expected to stretch to broken plastic toys, dubious insurance products, battery chickens, envy, or dementia.

Lets assume the god is a day dreamer; if so, with a trick of mind control, he can avoid the details that shame, expose or confuse.  He sticks to misty harmony and loveliness - he's a modern gardener, dreaming of endless flowers. It's early spring, the dreams are promise and hope for the seasons to come, surely this year they will be realised.  This is the time to imagine and plan. 

From Holbrook Garden - verbena bonariensis, white phlox, white veronicastrum in the distance, yellow verbascum, more to come, more has gone.

Masses of flowers dissolve through the mind's eye; drifty cloudy umbelliferous puffs, lacey mists of colour, tossing grasses and graceful spires.   No-one dreams of privet, or bergenias, surely, though I like them both.

Perhaps some gardeners do truly dream of heirloom carrots or the perfected compost heap. I find I have to be pretty wide awake for those.  Natural swimming ponds could figure, but I feel sure waist-high flowering plants would soften the surrounds and reflect in the water.  Gardening dreams surely begin with the grace and colour of flowers.

From East Ruston - alstroemeria, pink and yellow achillea, softly pruned box, variegated phlox

I remember a strange period in my early twenties, after I had turned my back on gardening for several years, preferring the furtive joys of late adolescence.  For a period, every night, as I drifted off to sleep, I would be surprised by visions, against the dark backings of my eyes, of complex masses of bright flowers like extended posies or florists' kaleidescopes.  They gave me great pleasure, almost making me laugh aloud.  You can imagine how fascinating my companion of the moment would find my attempts to explain.

Not that I'm saying I was special.  Just that I wanted to garden, this was how I told myself about it, and eventually I was lucky enough to make it come true.

Euphorbia cyparissias (A mad coloniser) and veronica peduncularis Georgia Blue

We have a lovely song today, one of the gentle waltzing parlour melodies that contrast so enticingly with the grizzled old voice.  It's This Dream Of You from the album Together Through Life.  It doesn't shout for attention, a heartfelt but quiet little song, addressed perhaps to anything that means enough for you to dream about, something that holds you together, leads you on and saves your life.

And you know that frisson of excitement you get in March?  That fresh appetite for gardening, that feeling of resolution and enthusiasm?  We're all fired up - ready to spring forth, into action, budding and bursting with plans and ideas.  This song reminds us that that feeling comes and goes, you have to work with it, feed it and hang on to it - the dream depends on you, just as you depend on the dream.  We gardeners know it comes round every spring, but sometimes it steps back, we're left wondering quite what we meant to achieve.  If you're lucky enough to have a dream, life is full of anxious moments, when faith in the dream flickers and gutters like a candle.  Nothing to do but persist with your vision.

I now see that my youthful visions, which today's photos attempt to convey, had as much to do with framing, leaving stuff out and the angle of vision.  How true that is of life!  As the actress said to the bishop, weakly.

Taken at the National Wildflower Centre in Liverpool.  Delightful place, lots of children.

At that time, visions of massed wildish looking flowers were neither fashionable nor did they seem realistic.  In the last ten or so years they have become universal, with the rise and rise of the meadow or prairie perennial in large numbers; now we love to wander amongst drifts of colour and movement, circled and embraced by fluffy grasses and bright patterned floral faces.

But we are not allowed to pick wild flowers, nor can our children.  Even though you need to touch and hold if you are to know and love.  Like water, like fire, you must get as close as you can.  As children we gathered everything, from kingcups to ragwort and bindweed, we made posies and assessed their beauty.  We adored the thrums and pins of primroses.  We were happy then!

Well, if not happy, familiar and fascinated.  Flowers have personalities; shy or pushy, part of a crowd or standing alone, mad, elegant, clumsy, rampant, flimsy; we all respond to them, a bit at least.  Can they possibly leave some people cold?

Agapanthus, acanthus,  thalictrum, veronicastrum, perowskia, asters Monch and tradescantii, geraniums Rozanne and Bill Wallis, astrantia, knautia, nepeta, sanguisorba, persicaria.  These are the perennials I find quite reliable for the soft massed effect.  They flower for a long time, they cope with heavy soil and some degree of drought.  They don't interest slugs, they support themselves, they don't die too badly.  They need one cut per year, to the ground, some time after flowering, before the next spring.  They're tough and sensible. With the tenderer guara lindheimeri, some bulbs and some grasses, and a reasonably open position, that's my recipe.

As you see, it's not a recipe that would astound or bewilder anyone.  Add poppies, sedums and euphorbias, maybe some alstroemerias (remembering to pull spent stems straight out of the ground, or they'll look awful), a few of the umbellifers, and maybe some glamorous annuals.  Here's one - didiscus, I think.    Stumpy ageratum on the left, much nicer in a taller form.

Over the years my garden dreams have shifted.  The banished frame has returned.  I'm interested in the settings and structures around the flowers and I like a lot of things that are bigger than me.  I don't like being outfaced by huge stretches of the same flower, too tall to see beyond.  All at roughly same height, too high to look down on, too low to stroll under,  they start to do the impossible - get a little bit boring.  I don't seem to love mathematically ordered settings for these tall wispy plants yet either, though I haven't been to Le Jardin Plume.

I love the profusion of a tall and graceful flowering shrub, a deutzia, an exochorda or a species lilac - syringa persica.  They're like visions set on their sides, relating to you from top to bottom.  Here's  an amazing cherry from Wisley, seething with dark-eyed flowers.  It's prunus incisa The Bride.  Perfection for a week or two, then gone with the wind.

And that's what happens in the song.  A persistent, sustaining dream dissolves, returns, and dissolves again, like a living being.  It's evanescent, but certain to come back.  It's as much the singer himself. You can't separate them for as the dream fades, he fades.  He fights to keep going, describing both the dream and himself.  He has to keep working at it, defending it with his dying breath and holding on to it even when he can't feel it.  And he does all this to a charming, layered melody, with, can it be, an accordion!

No good just sitting about dreaming.  If your dream is a bit what you believe will happen, a bit what you hope will happen, it's also what you must strive for and work towards.  As the singer points out, there's a moment when all old things become new again .   And it's now for many of us, time to get excited again, time to sow the seeds, and time to create the dream.  Like lucky gods, we dream what we create, but we must hold on to it, for that way it will hold us too.


  1. What a lovely dreamy peice, goodness me how beautiful is that prunus. As you know I am fired up, not only is it spring, but I've been denied a garden all winter. I can already see how it will be, even though it is a field of mud with just the symbolic cypress and walnut. Have been submerged in gods with the Iliad but, though not divine, was much taken last year with Virgil and his helpful notes on horticulture:

    Let green rosemary, and wild thyme with far-flung fragrance, and a wealth of strongly-scented savory, flower around them,and let beds of violets drink from the trickling spring.

    which is for a hotter and drier (well, poss not) place than Kent, but how it will be in my dream, we already have clouds of violets and primroses along the river bank.

  2. Thanks Penny, how lovely to be Homerically connected, he puts it perfectly. It's that "let" I think, commanding and wishing in the same breath. Joys of the subjunctive I expect.

  3. Now this speaks to me today. I am all fired up with spring energy and have been working in the garden for days, mainly weeding which when you have 2 acres of scrubby garden takes a long time. Sometime in every day I have wondered if I can really do what I am trying to do here and have wobbled and wondered and returned persistently and doggedly to the dream. I like your list of plants which work towards the dream too. Veronicastrum and agapanthus are the only ones I don't have. I wonder if they would survive in thin stony soil half way up a Welsh hill?

  4. Hi elizabethm, so glad it struck a chord. It's a good song for keeping going I think, doesn't minimise the moments of self-doubt so helps you surmount them. Agapanthus is fantastically weed-excluding, tough as old boots, down here. They need good light I think but good drainage and frequent Welsh moisture should be good for both plants although they put up with the opposite here. We have more sun I think but in small gardens they cope with some shade. Agapanthus tend to bend to light rather unbecomingly, but inapertus stand up straighter. I think that and the more evergreen agapanthus are reputedly the tenderest. I loved veronicastrum Fascination and white agapanthus last year.

    Enjoy the weeding! let Dylan sing you through it, he's very kind like that.