Saturday, 24 March 2012

Where The Buds Break - Handy Dandy

I caught the eye of a cheerful baby today - rounded little head, tight, plump skin, dense with life and potential; a bud, a baby, what's the difference?

A flower bud is a bit specialised - we're really talking about the pointier, leafier ones today.

Well, we'll think about that in a minute.  First the song, one of my favourites.  I love a bit of loucheness and he's a sexy beast, that old Handy Dandy, swivel-hipped no doubt, laconic certainly, sure of himself but with hidden depths. His timing is spectacular, at least on the version on Under The Red Sky; his inflections perfection, he's hip, rhythmic, with a jivey stutter.  Yes, he's rather thrilling, in complete command of his band and his boys.  He's sketched out in the swiftest of brush-strokes, complete and impenetrable.

Recognition, that's what I'm hoping to explore today.  It doesn't take a lot to recognise Handy Dandy. Blink, and you know exactly what he's like; you see the otherness, the command, the withholdingness. That's fine, we've got the idea, we won't expect more than he offers.  The sugar and the candy are snares and delusions. The stick, the money, the women and the hounding moonlight, the acolytes with the brandy - they tell the story.  He's presented to us for our pleasure and interest,  a bag with a riddle in it.

Now I'm going to judder across to the world of plants, clutching this notion of recognition - not identification, but recognition of a familiar kind or type.  And we're not just doing it for fun.  The business of the day is multiplication;  from what we have we wish to make more, but we want to do it quickly and easily, so we need to recognise the nature of our subjects.

First let's have a quick look at the cuttings I took last autumn.

Clockwise - Ballota acetabulosa, santolina, salvia Bergarten, rue - roots just budding. purple hebe.
Couple of waterings since last autumn - not a lot of work 

You can see that they have developed roots - they're tiny but complete, all I need to do is separate them, put them each in their own little pot of reasonable compost, keep them watered, maybe feed them a bit, pot them on again and plant them in the garden as soon as I think they're big enough and won't get stood on or scratched up by cats.

And that was propagation of the most basic kind, ripping off a small piece of plant and giving it the conditions to develop roots and become its own new plant.  Semi-ripe cuttings is what they were officially.

Plant-life is utter otherness to us animals.  We, and all other animals, however baroquely shaped, are bags of organs, liquid and bone, entire and independently mobile. We are damaged if broken or penetrated.  We are sealed by our coverings, even within our orifices, and any cut will wound.

But plants respond differently; they compensate for lack of mobility with imaginative forms of creation and development, often springing from damage.  In the wild, wherever that is, wind and animals prune them constantly.

Gardeners have learnt to harness these alien abilities; from them we have developed crucial elements of horticulture  - pruning and vegetative propagation. The buds of a plant tell us where and how to prune.  They also show us how to multiply or clone a plant, from cuttings or division in spring.  Observe and understand the budding - you will draw closer to the world of plants.  A leafy veil will lift.

Ballota acetabulosa, showing varied bud breaks in response to differing cuts

Every plant has buds, which are habitual break-outs or spurts of growth from under the skin of the stem, most easily at the junctions with roots or leaves.  These spurts are stimulated into growth  by light and hormones. They develop, reasonably predictably, into leaves, shoots, flowers or roots.  A plant must have at least a shoot or a root, for other buds to develop. Without shoots or roots we're in some other world, bacteria maybe, or fungi.  Even more mysterious worlds.

Buds are part of spring; shrubs and trees have scatterings of them at their extremities - if the buds shrivel or fail to develop, the flow of water and nutrients to that part of the plant has been interrupted -  you'll need to cut back to healthy buds.  If none develop soon,  the plant's dying. I rely on information from the buds rather than that old scraping back the bark trick.

Some trees or shrubs may continue to produce buds from their base or trunk - easy to rub them out with your thumb, if you want a clean stem.

Where do the buds break?  That's what you're looking for; if you can see them throughout a deciduous plant, from the base to the ends, even if they're few in some areas, you know that that plant breaks buds easily and can be renewed with pruning.  If you see a mass of stems at the base - that too tells you it's capable of breaking new buds at the junctions of stems and roots - often the most active area for budding.  Strong new shoots will develop from there if old ones are removed.

Sometimes you can see a big shrub begging to be reduced at the base, as the branches swell together threateningly - cut older whole branches right out, right from the bottom, while you can still get a tool in.

Lonicera purpusii - winter-flowering honeysuckle

Rounder buds often contain incipient flowers.  They won't change the size or structure of the plant.  Pointier buds will grow out into leaves and branches.  They'll make the whole thing bigger, and add to the structure.  We animals can't do that - add new limbs and heads, making a kind of multiple giant.

Pruning always removes some potential buds.  You need to think ahead.  Those further down the plant will be jolted into bigger better growth when the top ones are removed.  You can use this knowledge to choose where you want a branch to spring from, if you can see the incipient bud and where it points.  Sometimes it will be invisible, defined by a line on a rose stem, or lurking in the axil of a leaf.  We're playing cat and mouse, running rings round the plant, for our own purposes.

I'm proud to have stimulated this elderly rose into producing three tiny new buds at the base - I take credit because I pruned out one whole branch, opened and cleaned the base up, then spotted the buds before I knocked them off.

Let's turn to perennials, whose buds are gathered in forceful little groups at the base. Such plants don't develop woody structures above the ground.

Peonies have excellent decorative, decorous, democratic buds.  They tend not to overcrowd themselves so don't need to be divided, though you might wish to try increasing a favourite.  That shoot off at the far top could be extracted with a good bit of root.  That way you would not annoy the parent, for these plants do not wish to be disturbed.

Their roots can be pretty woody though, plants shade back and forth across the boundaries of texture, some are soft and waxy (hostas), some tangled and fibrous, some woodily branched, like shrubs upside down (sanguisorbas).

These last may not be that easy to dig up, as with the peony above, you could try just hand-forking growing pieces from the edge for replanting at the exact right depth.  You could also tidy some of the dead material in the middle away to let in the light, fill in any rotted or dead spots and hope for the best - simple strategies like this can put off the evil day of complete excavation and the back to back forks, or axe.

Hemerocallis Stella D'Oro - bright pretty leaves, dark yellow flowers.  This plant could be divided into at least 20 - it's denser than it looks

Many herbaceous perennials can be split or divided.  Dig them up, break them into a mass of individuals, each with bud and roots, replant good plump ones in fresh soil.  Throw away thin, congested, miserable pieces; they've lost their vigour and we want the cheerful plump babies, a fresh start, lots of playing..

About a quarter of it

Many herbaceous perennials - especially those with daisy flowers - can yield excellent spring cuttings from rootless shoots.  Give them a try - that sweet spot where they grew from the exhausted roots of a congested plant is all fired up and ready to produce fresh roots.  Waggle them free from the plant, pop them in a pot, keep them close and watered, they'll root like billy-oh.  You can then chuck away the old plant which might have entered a stage of despair, rotting and strangling itself underground.  Count it a pleasure.

The most unmanageable plants are perhaps those that develop buds directly from the roaming roots, creating new plants at a distance from the parent.  They're suckering suckers.  One of the worst weeds I ever had was gallica rose Charles De Mills, on its own roots (my fault).  It ran about like the clappers, each new piece so strongly rooted, so flimsy in appearance but ineradicable.  We've had to build a house there, to save my embarrassment. That taught me.  Something anyway. 

For this, beware sumachs and raspberries, but also macleaya, romneya and japanese anemones.  I don't mean don't have them, just be aware.  Of course this may all be a matter of sucking eggs to you.

From plants which spread unacceptably wide to the minimalism of bulbs, which are packed like buds, tightly retracted; flower, leaves, roots, all closely set together, ready to burst out. 

We're putting to one side, for the moment, those outrageously profligate small alliums, the ones whose bulbs, like dragons teeth, spring apart into hundreds of thin scales, each a bulblet. We'll stick with the normal - tight, tidy bulbs. They're perhaps the neatest plant form of all for vegetative reproduction, egg-like underground buds. 

But they're not eggs you know, not at all.  This is an egg;

"He's got that clear crystal fountain
He's got that soft silky skin
He's got that fortress on the mountain
With no doors, no windows, where thieves can break in."
And that's Handy Dandy for you, entire and separate, full of meat but a bit mixed, like the egg set before the curate.  He's defended by his skin, developing within an unbroken protective wall.  He's human - no ways in, no ways out.

Nothing can touch this cool character; he lives as if he will never die, he conceals his own pain, he has no fear.  But look at him, "he got a basket of flowers and a bag full of sorrow."  Something's not going well.  Perhaps he regrets his retreat into his shell.

Plants have integrated, porous,developing walls; if they're broken into, growth explodes into new buds, healing the rifts behind them as they grow.  Their dependence on their environment is immediate and absolute.  Confused by our own mobility and separateness, we human animals imagine we are self-sufficient.
We think we can manage under most conditions  for we are not quite in touch with this world where we live. As the song seems to suggest, that's an attractive proposition - but it has its price.

As gardeners we know certain things about plants  - their dependence on soil, sun and moisture, their murderous competition and their responsivity to circumstances. Sometimes their otherness confuses us, we might imagine that pruning may kill, rather than stimulate growth.   We might think that a large herbaceous plant is a single individual, rather than a mass of competing entities, desperate for space and light.

It's sadly true to say that I could go on for ever with this, I'm so keen for you to spread the wealth.  There's a  lot to deal with and I've displayed Handy Dandyish arrogance in imagining I could reduce gardening to bud-perception.  But it was worth a try, stepping into the shoes of a plant may be beyond me, but at least I don't think I'm an egg.


  1. It looks like a heavenly place to be! You are so knowledgeable Jane. I wish my back would let me get in the dirt and do these things again. I have my years of that I suppose.

    I am so eager to watch as your garden progresses. I too am a rose lover, but we have squirrels and deer. They eat all of my flowers from all of my plants and I don't quite know what to pot this spring, or how to keep them off. Right now the pansies are in the bird bath, on a top ledge, and the squirrel is just looking how do I get up there, I hear him thinking.

    Off to find some Handy Dandy info. Enjoy the day. gin

    1. Hi Gin, sorry to hear about your back! I 've never had a deer but a bit worried about a world of new animals in Italy. I like to share but some things are just too pushy.

      Thanks for reading and commenting - I had fun with the buds, and Handy Dandy, Jane

  2. Do you know that your blog is the most amazing place? I love it.
    I didn't know that about daisy flowered plants. Would it work with Shasta daisies? Yes I know they are not rare or fashionable but I have a glorious double given to me by an elderly neighbour that for a few weeks a year I love. I was wondering about splitting it but the clump is not very big yet and it might be kinder to try your technique.

  3. Elizabethm, your comment gives me such heart. Not that I would mind if people told me it was a pretentious pointless blog, all comments being welcome, but I can't deny the glow that has come over me.

    The shastas - well you've picked on the quintessential daisy, the long-flowering ones tend to weaken themselves by overflowering, without adequate winter stores for next year's shoots. They need devoted dividing and planting in fresh soil in Spring, so they can build themselves up then. With yours, even though it may not flower for so long I would definitely try the waggling off trick, often you'll get a bit of root anyway with these. Good luck with it, a good shasta daisy is quite a showstopper and I think they're quite fashionable!

    1. I shall try. Looks like I am accidentally fashionable in plants as occasionally happens with clothes!