Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Rue The Day - I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Have Never Met)

Here's a rather December picture.  It's a plant of rue, ruta graveolens, not the tighter,  brighter kind called Jackman's Blue - it's the rarely seen species, glimmering away in a wilder part of the Bagatelle gardens, Paris.

How useful is rue then? We used to think it belonged in herb gardens - those unsuccessful institutions for meek, ramshackle, tasty-leaved plants.  Herbs can be roots, seeds, stems.  Really they're just very strongly flavoured vegetables, of which you only want a little bit.  Or, to put it another way, they're wetter, greener, spices. In our innocence we used to try to corral small tasty leaves of this type, plus a few unlikely roots and selected seed heads, in old cartwheels, or divided and segmented  prisons, out of which the mint, lovage and lemon balm would burst, frightened by the horseradish.

I love the way I sound in that last paragraph, so worldly-wise, like a real gardening sophisticate, who never made an error or followed the crowd down a foolish cul-de-sac. Nonsense really.  Best course to take is learn the lesson and be a bit rueful about it.

Here's that sort of herb garden.   It carries less of the herby baggage now, leaning more towards its own topiarised divisions; indeed, it's heavy sculpture now, frilled with wispy fluff. From York Gate in Yorkshire,UK. Significant changes have been made, but no rue is evident.

Rue may be an interesting and useful emotional response, leavening regret or disappointment but it's not a very useable herb.  I cannot imagine wishing to eat it; a sandwich of rue would sear my mouth with bitterness.

For years however I have used rue in my English gardens as a strong rounded clump of glaucous blue.  There are three little ones in the picture above, in heavy soil and dry shade. Though it will look good in a gentle climate right through until the spring, it's particularly telling in August, exactly when one is full of rueful reflections about gardening, feeling the game is not worth the candle and wondering where it all went wrong. Excitement is at a low ebb, but if in early spring you managed to trim your rue down to a nearly cabbagey stump your reward is here, tight blue filigree in informal globes, brightening dry shade and lifting small maroon, magenta or pale sad pink flowers like allium senescens.

Not one to put with lush prairie planting and big flowers, rue seems best to me against low, fairly delicate planting.  So-called alpines (another elastic category) that are past their own moments of bright flower can work well. It's slightly artificial colour can also stand well in town gardens where evergreens and architecture predominate. In old-fashioned non-naturalistic planting in other words, so uninteresting and passe', now that we're all straining to make our gardens look as though they just happen to be be beautiful and full of flowers, not as though we've spent forever trying to achieve that effect.  Smart hedges and topiary of yew, box or hornbeam are fine of course.  They are for the straight-lined containment and shaping of the abounding naturalness.  I will remind you at this point that I'm not at all bitter, I'm rueful.

Here are two relatively recent kinds of herb gardens, neither of them claiming to be a herb garden as such.  The first could easily have rue in it, but doesn't.  It's part of Beth Chatto's exquisite informal Mediterranean dry river bed planting, perfect for many of our tastiest herbs.  This garden is underpinned  by the truths of naturalistic planting but the grouping and placing is that of the conscious gardener making pictures.   I love it, but it's not very Now.

The second one, below, from Morville Hall, on the other hand, is very current.  It looks like a runaway herby potager or cutting garden.  Soft and misty, haphazard, pretty by accident -it looks "natural" and adorable.  Note the sweet peas: is there a plant that requires more human attention?   Rue might fit in, especially if running to flower or seed.

But rue won't go everywhere, blue filigree foliage makes it  altogether a rather demanding little madame or possibly monsieur. So there's the thing - you have to keep a tight check on your rue - it's not a plant or a sentiment of which very frequent or repeated use can be made. Here and there however, at well-chosen moments it can strike just the right note, refreshing the regrets of late summer or a relationship that ended untimely and against your will.

And so we turn to the song - I Don't Believe You  (She Acts Like We Have Never Met).   It's a song from the early album Another Side of Bob Dylan.  The theme is of innocence versus artifice, apparent straightforwardness versus incontrovertible game-playing - it's more or less there in the title.

I'm circling round a plant-based connection to the singer and his story.  He could be bitter, coldly ignored by the female conquest of the night before, but he's not - he prefers to finesse disappointment by learning something, ruefully.  He learns that it is easy enough to deal with rejecting someone else- all you have to do is act like you have never met, you don't have to explain or argue. As a person on the receiving end of such treatment he is full of youthful bravado, wondering what he did wrong. As a person looking for ways to manage life, people, and their many demands he decides, exchanging disappointment for amusement, that this is a useful idea, and you can use it with anyone you like.    It's a shift from one world to another, from innocence to cynicism, the brandishing of a little rue leading to the acquisition of a useful skill.

The song has an interesting modernist feel. The music is dissonant, even rudimentary.  He uses half-speech, plunging you into the middle of a conversation. As the listener you fill in your own half as the song goes on. He sounds like a friend trying not to spill his guts but needing to confide and think through his rejection, so there's a feeling of intimacy.  He uses every trick in the book to distance himself from any possible sorrow, only the harmonica betrays him.  And that too convinces us of how hard he is working to cover up his true feelings, and therefore of the depth of those feelings.  Or is that too Machiavellian an interpretation?  Maybe the laughter is genuinely because he sang the verses in the wrong order, not rueful about being ignored at all.

He laughs anyway, he remembers how her skirt swung, how watery and wet her mouth was.  Who would ever imagine you could say that, it sounds so naive, so accurately and almost childishly visceral.  But there's more to it than that, we all know what he really means.  Anyway it serves to prove that she's lying about something, even though she doesn't want any more of him now.  Its another very crafted, clever song, rhetoric in action.  I completely believe him, but the whole thing's a set-up, like the modern naturalistic garden.
In my youth it dawned on gardeners that plants, like people, should aim to have something interesting to offer even when the raging glory of reproduction is past.  It's a rather dated realisation about how to plant a garden now, one that can result in a rash of tawdry and attention seeking leaf-forms.

Still, a little intelligent restraint ought to be possible, as in all things.  See the picture below, again from Beth Chatto, gentle contrasts of shape and colour, all clearly guided by a gardener’s hand.

Let me remind you of what we loved - plants that filled our gardens, covering every inch of soil, end to end and depth over depth.  One thing would arrive as another finished, bulbs pierced through; foliage, where possible evergreen, made complementary contrast at every level.  Beds faced a certain way.  Ornamental gardening was like flower-arrangement on the ground.  The plants used were expected to offer maximum bang for minimal buck - especially in terms of space. Thence hebes, hostas, acers, photinias, euonymus.  Characterful leaves of many colours, impact of shape, structure and hue.

The effects die hard.  New coloured-leaved forms of nearly every sort of plant, preferably shorter, tighter and easier, are still sought and introduced.  On the one hand, they're terribly tempting, so neat and bright: on the other, they look synthetic and clumpy, the dead hand of a forgotten fancy.

I’m sorry to use this next picture, but not sorry enough to stop myself.  The garden was one I simply passed, not open to the public, not asking for my opinion, but it illustrates my point as well as anything could.  An explosion has occurred in a garden centre.  Or an enthusiastic innocent has simply fallen for everything, when coolness and hauteur might would have worked better.


So now I hope you can see how these things are true for both gardener and lover.  Hip and distant, I’m sad to say, scores higher than frank and keen.  Naturalistic is both simpler and more difficult in gardens.  And the song too turns everything on its head, several times over.  We end up wondering exactly where artifice lies.

Back to the plants.  Can we retrieve something from those out-dated ideas?  I still cling to some of what I learnt, to what made so much sense - I still like plants that offer interesting shapes, stems and leaves, plants that cover the ground but are more than formless matt mid-green. I do not like to place all my eggs in the basket set only for flowers. Especially in darker Kent, where we're used to a bit of murk. Light levels can postpone and limit summer flowering but winters are often warmish and dankish, making a mess of dying foliage and seed-heads.

I have tried experimenting with freer, taller, gently coloured plants, both shrubs and perennials, that can offer that extra bonus of softly coloured leaves over a longer period.  Here I’ve used a taller glaucous blue plant, thalictrum flavum sbsp glaucum or, as it also seems to be known, thalictrum speciosissimum, or Illuminator.  It’s also called Dusty or Yellow meadow-rue and that is in fact what it is like, a huge open rue, blue-leaved and fluffy-flowered.

Alongside it is a tiny-crimson-flowered, late-blooming fuschia with ashy pink leaves, (fuschia magellanica versicolor), and a yellowish-leaved abelia (abelia grandiflora Francis Mason) with eventual pale pink flowers.  The thalictrum can be cut to the ground after it turns messy in July and will speedily refurnish itself.  The abelia is nearly evergreen with me, just remove old wood from the base when it gets congested.  The fuschia needs cutting to the ground in spring and any plain green shoots should be removed from the base as it restarts.  Plant it all once.  Weeds and slugs barely get a chance.  Flowers from June to October, even November, no resowing, or dividing.  But maybe it’s just a mess and a bore. 
It is at the boundaries of our desire for colour, order and complexity, against our love of looseness, naturalness and wildness, that we fight our gardening battles.  Quick, plant some grasses -  relieve the heaviness and stage-management of the old style of planting. Drag the casualties, shrubs and bright evergreens off the field.  No-one seems to want or even comprehend low ground-cover.  I'm left  puzzled and lost sometimes, longing to use my old weapons.

As the song reminds me though,you need to be able to recognise a little artifice and be able to use it yourself. Preferably with a light touch. No point acting like you've never met when a simple cool acknowledgement will do.  No point pretending that flowering is endless and gardening unnecessary.  Or that what seemed good once is the same now.   A little rueful discrimination might help as the tide turns. We’ll still not get it quite right, let’s hope we get it wrong differently.


  1. Sorry about the typeface change in this post, can't seem to eliminate it, but it has no meaning.

  2. Mmm, where to start? I had rue in the kitchen garden but dug it up in an angry fit one day when I got fed up of its woody base and sprawly habit. I have often regretted that one...
    I am intrigued by what you say about things being "now". I am very aware of the way we seem to have banished shrubs and evergreens (unless in the form of box balls) from our gardens in favour of grasses and wildflower meadows and prairie perennials. Yet the planting I have done here in my inadequate attempts to create some kind of garden out of an acre of sloping field with a fantastic view (which will always be more stunning than anything I can plant) which has given me most pleasure is the planting of shrubs and trees and hedges. One of the reasons I do very little garden visiting is that it clutters up my head with what others are doing and what is "now". I find it hard enough to hold onto my shaky sense of what I am trying to do without visions of prairie planting and the olympic park elbowing it out.

  3. Hi Elizabeth - thanks for your thoughts, as ever, you go to the heart of the gardening matters. The trick now seems to be that look of "what, this old thing, I just flung it on", all sorts of ways of getting it, but like when you get dressed, the hardest thing to pull off if it doesn't come naturally.

    Still I agree that nothing should damage our own genuine pleasure and satisfaction, whether it's best to ignore change or meet it, I'm not sure.

    I think the problem is that what is in our own heads is never uninfluenced by what everyone is loving. We can't help going along - even if you don't visit gardens it gets in your head simply because it looks right. So I don't talk about Now stuff because I slavishly wish to follow it, it's just wanting to understand what looks good, how it's done etc. Sorting out a cluttered head is a good chunk of gardening activity I think.

    Mind you, I always try for something easy in the end, my own besetting sin. And I agree with you, now I've got a view myself, that the challenges are enormous, for some reason I feel I can only plant flat tiny little things, weird but powerful - I'll have to find a way out of that.

    As for the rue, if you get another, try the pruning, Marchish. I don't let it flower either, that keeps it young.
    x Jane