Thursday, 12 April 2012

Mortified By Dimity - You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go

What a relief!  Partly, we've had a few drops of rain, partly everything else.  Always a lovely thing, when the tension breaks,  people start to chatter and laugh, the light brightens and a breeze blows through, lifting our spirits.  This is the moment to glance laughingly at the person on your arm, satisfied that there has not been and there will not be pain.

We're in a perfect moment, the sweet shallows of careless love - that is, love without cares, or perhaps love without care: the love of the song of the day.  It's from Blood on The Tracks and it's called You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.  (But not as lonesome as all that) is the disclaimer which should follow the name of the song.

For the protagonist is disingenuous. His tongue slips when he mentions careless love; this temporary attachment with an easy end is what he wants.  He sounds as if he might be going to be sad, for the woman he's singing to plans to leave, but in fact he's just playing.  In the last verse he runs through what it will feel like when she goes and how he'll get over it.  This is not a love song, it's the song of someone sliding out of a brief, almost  holiday connection, sunshine and flowers, nothing more.

You might have glanced in horror at my title, as afraid of arch cuteness as I am.  But I'm just saying what happens, honest, true as I sit here, I am a little bit mortified by dimity.  Let me explain.

The perfectly pretty, prettily perfect world of gardening is the problem. My age and type counts me out of even imagining I want riots and revolutions; I don't enjoy peril much, even when it's safely on screen.  But that doesn't mean I like everything to be gentle;  a connection with reality never goes amiss, and I like things to be interesting and true.

Dimity is my representative word for all that lavendery, bonnety, pastel side of gardening.  The one that makes women (in my culture anyway) exclaim to each other and men fall silent, knowing there's nothing to be said, and not quite sure of their ground.  Some would rather deal with a ravening beast than all this prettiness and innocence,  muslin and speckled eggs.  I have no intention of mentioning Jane Austen.  The whole thing's a little bit embarrassing in this hard world.

This is from Bosvigo in Cornwall, the wall dimity is erigeron karavskianus and an unremembered rose

I have a dear friend, ironic and clever, good at everything.  She has no pretensions to garden design but unimpeachable taste, unlike mine, which is influenced by far too many extraneous factors.  She had a small enclosed garden, behind a cottage. One day I visited, only to be mortified by dimity.

The trellis dividing the garden was wreathed, from end to end, top to bottom,  in summer jasmine, tight to its host, perfuming the air, the minute magnetic flowers exquisitely  spaced amongst the delicate dark leaves.  The walls were equally evenly swagged with small pastel pink roses, Paul's Himalayan Musk, and laced with layers of hydrangea petiolaris. I don't remember what was at floor level, campanulas and alpine phlox I think.  It was unforgiveably pretty.

I had not imagined that that selection of plants could result in such a bath of sweetness.  The whole garden seemed decked in living fabrics or wallpaper.  I was mortified, for my own suggestions were completely wrong and superfluous.  And I succumbed mentally, whipping my bonnet out of my bag.

I should have had my camera, of course; then you would see exactly what I mean.  Sorry to say, it never looked  exactly like that again and I'll explain more about that in a minute.

Allow me to define dimity more precisely.  In real life it's fine cotton fabric, woven to make a stripey texture in the cloth.  It's usually very pale and often scattered with evenly spaced, small, spriggish flowers, open-faced and simple.  Pretty young girls wear it, tossing their hair and carrying baskets.

Transferred to real plants, it's those that can cover large flat areas with gently coloured, separate, small flowers; the structure of the plant and the leaves are merely background.  I'm inventing its garden application, I have no justification for it.  The pale flowers stand in for the pale cotton background; the whole effect, in its most perfect form moulded to an architectural host, scattered with spots of brightness, is what I'm talking about.

This one's a bit too brash and bright.  In general, good examples are hard to find, they're space and labour-intensive.

Here's a wildly daring experiment in gardening for the public.   It's in Italy, near Turin, at La Venaria Reale, an enormous palace. It doesn't look wildly daring but in this vast space, where huge sheltering steel tunnels connect all four sides, only two varieties of rose have been used.  I think they were Bloomfield Abundance around the tunnels and Little White Pet in the beds.  The idea is to create a tasteful dimity on a vast, possibly inappropriate scale.  I'm a bit worried it's too pure and too abstemious.  It's rather a trek round, though scented and sparkly. 

The song is light and flowery.  The protagonist is flippant and dismissive about pain in the past, equally so about pain in the future.  There's no proper bravado, he sounds light-hearted and relieved, distracting our attention with some pretty, bucolic details - there aren't many songs with Queen Annes Lace in them, I think.

Those crickets, talking back and forth in rhyme, they're just right.  Down there at ground level, where she lies with her hair across her face, you'd hear them coming from different sides.  I'm not going to say it's a dimity song; that would be ridiculous.

But perhaps there's a tiny bit of dimity in the ersatz nostalgia as well as the flowers.  She hasn't left yet, this woman, but he already knows how he'll remember her - like someone who no longer exists, in other people's faces for example.  He's enjoying this pretty shallow moment, and makes a joke about giving himself a good talking to in the future.  And there's nothing wrong in any of it, it's a perfectly achieved song, a slippery exercise in total ambiguity, and fogged with extra thoughts about French poets and the like.  Lonesome?  I don't think so.

Remember that woman I said I wouldn't mention? In some ways we've got a very complex piece of  coded etiquette here, worthy of Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility.  Actually worthier, Willoughby was clumsy with his kiss off  and subjected Marianne to public and private mortification.  This song dices around with attributions of responsibility, but it's kind and face-saving.  Or is it a double double-bluff?   Are we supposed to see through it to the kindness or one level below, to the steely resolve to be done with her, whilst looking kind?

Let me turn back to the jasmine, jasminum officinale, a flower we all think of with nostalgia, even when it's with us.  That's partly because its perfect moments, in this country at least, are so elusive.  The problem lies in the nature of the plant;  it longs for a west-facing sheltered spot, plenty of sun, but not scorching, a long warm summer, a mild winter.  Straight after planting it will send out long feelers; it has the capacity to extend to 40 feet.  You, the kind gardener, will tie them in to the bit of trellis you have allowed them in your already full town garden.

 Next year you will have a good number of flowers; if your trellis is small, it will be your best year.  If it's extensive trellis, like my friend's, and getting the right level of sunshine, the following year will be your jasmine apotheosis.  Covered in flowers, happy as Larry, chucking out the scent, you will wonder why jasmines aren't growing everywhere, funny how you don't really notice them, when they're this easy and lovely.

As that year ends you'll be thinking the jasmine looks a bit of a mess, there's masses of growth, it's getting tangled and showing some nasty brown stems.  The trellis is disappearing.  The jasmine seems to be growing most strongly above it.   Time for a little prune you might think, but stay your hand, knowing it doesn't like the winter.

Come the spring, you cut it back; it's confusing, the bright green growths come from the old, at every height and level but there's least from lower down. On each bright green growth there are dozens of new shoots starting. Cutting it back to a framework, like wisteria or a vine, seems the only option.  And the flowering this year will be paltry and late, but the plant will be a massive mess again by October.

The problem is that jasmine produces an overwhelming number of new shoots, from its upper and outer parts, almost at the same time as it flowers. By September, there will be masses of long fresh stems all around the outside of the plant.  They're the ones that will produce another mass of new flowering wood in the spring.  You could cut them back in the autumn, but jasmine doesn't like too much cold and it will be slow to start next year.  Equally, if you cut it all back in the spring, the plant won't have time to produce long enough, ripe enough, flowering wood.

If you don't cut it back, which the plant might like best, you'll have a great tangle of brown in the middle of the plant - last year's flowered growths and the ones that flowered this year going over.  You're in a muddle, it can only get worse as the flowers proportionately decrease and the tangle increases.  It's not your fault, obviously;  it's the too-pushy and inadequately-ripening jasmine's, it's the sad lost dimity of the garden.

That was a long explanation, I hope it was worthwhile.  You notice a less troublesome version of the same problem with all those flowering shrubs that get fiercely pruned into bodge shapes in the autumn - all the shoots that are getting ready to flower next year are chopped off, and you're left with worn out old wood.  But they don't look as bad as jasmine, and they can be brought back into shape and floriferousness with care and earlier pruning, sorting old from new wood and preserving some of the latter or starting it off from lower down by cutting there.

You can try cutting your jasmine back to a couple of feet from the ground and see how it does - it'll take a few years to flower again and then you'll be back in the same position.  But I can't tell you it likes it, mine has never been happy again. I will admit it's in too much shade, so you might do better.

Mortifying isn't it?  But at my friend's house that year, when it was all in balance, the flowering growths fitted the trellis, nothing had to be cut away, that was the year of the divinity, dimity. 

You can try different varieties of jasmine - "Clotted Cream" is the new one and supposed to be less vigorous, so might be more manageable. "Affine" is even more vigorous so I have no hopes of that.  You can grow coloured leaved ones, variegated or limey-green, and prune them hard, to a framework in Spring, treating the flowers as a secondary, minor,  attraction.  Here's my "Fiona Sunshine" on the right - hardly an 18th century colour, and not much good with that pale blue clematis, Blue Angel.  Sometimes this jasmine surprises me with the number of flowers it produces, - it thinks I don't care you see, and in some ways it's right, I don't care for it much.

My rather obvious suggestions for easier climbers that might work better are trachelospermum jasminoides, and solanum jasminoides album.  The first smells lovely, but its leaves are evergreen and not delicate.  The second has larger flowers, utterly scentless, unreasonably tender really.

Now, the song's disappearing from us - it's a nostalgic memory even though it's still here.  I'm leaving you with a picture of Gresgarth Hall - I think it's got the right floral, dotted pastel look.  See how unifying it is, even against such a large background, and even without climbers trained flat.  But that big blank space of wall is crying out for a bit more dimity - just to pull it all together.

And the truth is that keeping large but delicate looking climbers flat against walls, whether roses, jasmine or clematis - it's always a labour of love and elimination, constant attention, endless sorting out and tying in.  The song is a bit of a con, careless love just about sums it up.  It's a contradiction in terms, like jasmine, so easy but so difficult.  Dylan carries off the kind cut better with his song than most of us can ever do with the climbers we use when we aspire to dimity.


  1. Haha, this goes a long way to explaining how brilliant I felt after rooting out an old jasmine this weekend!! I was worried I should feel guilt, not pleasure as I cut up the branches that had crushed my trellis like a boa constrictor - thanks Jane, and in my gratitude I might even listen to the song......

    1. There you are you see, Dylan explains everything!
      Thanks Kathy, happy gardening.

  2. thanks for share.