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.

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.

Friday, 9 March 2012

A Welcome to Freedom - Like A Rolling Stone

Fair enough, this song, from Highway 61 Revisited, is not one to approach without trepidation.  Surely there is nothing left to suck out of it?  But the song itself is still there and  I'm confident we all have a right of response to a public monolith; so here I am, ready with my gardener's tuppence.

It's actually at least as much of a woman's tuppence I suppose.  As a product of my own time, I never thought the song was anything other than a direct comment on the situation of women - women who were both mad and arrogant enough to think they were capable of being alone in the world, unprotected, yet with their illusions about their own powers, derived from their protected status, intact.

Those two conditions, being protected and being powerful, seemed to be mutually exclusive. And maybe they are, and maybe they should be.  Discuss.

Anyway being punished and abandoned  was apparently the shortest route to liberty for these basically useless creatures, women.  I sound jaundiced.  If you're not female, I completely accept that this was not necessarily the point of the song.

But I'll come back to all this.  For the moment I want to recall a hot July day about five years ago,  in Stockbridge, Massachusets, where I visited The Mount, Edith Wharton's creation and home.  The light was forceful, hammering down from the sky, completely unlike British light.  The trees and grass were emeralds, spinach, and luminous lime.  I was startled by the titanium white of the buildings and their height; the contrasts, the dazzle and the splendour. Hubris, one could think.

The house has a strong focus, out from the back, over the garden and beyond, to the wilderness.  From the high expansive terrace, so spacious and welcoming, you can sit in luxurious safety, viewing the perfected landscape at the nearer level, and the fenced and gated unknown distance.

Edith Wharton, it's well known, though wealthy from birth, made a miserable marriage of convenience for, like all of us, she needed the freedom of adulthood and that was mostly the only way to it at that time in her class.  She made her house and garden, but longed for Europe and an older world, so eventually left them.

Her divorce was inevitable, but corrosive and wrenching.  The fearsome threats and demands of freedom, particularly for women, were her subject in her novels.  Her life was a magnificent victory over these threats - but her female subjects did not always win their own battles and paid price after price.  I had not imagined that her garden too would so eloquently express the same themes - the threatening freedom of the outside, versus the obligations and privileges of high society.

Of course she was fascinated by Italian gardens - and this is part of what they too are seen to express, green slices or wedges of symmetry and order set in the wild wood.  They're often surprising and drenched with meaning about human aspirations, a matter of steps and strong axes.

As for the Dylan connection - well, what can I say, listen to the song again - you'll find the limits of self-knowledge and over-weening arrogance, vanity, treachery  and high society all there, perfectly embodied.  Glimpses of startling aggression and harshness flare in the distance and sometimes come close enough to destroy.

Like a Rolling Stone could have been written for Lily Bart, of The House of Mirth, a novel Edith Wharton wrote in 1905.    She, Ms Bart, hasn't understood the true cost of her access to wealthy homes and is destroyed by her prideful refusal to pay for it with her sexual  and marital freedom. The mystery tramp offers her no alibis, her youth and looks begin to fade, her admirers call in their favours and she ends up failing and incapable of making adequate, saleable hats, like the working women she has never really noticed.  She lacks strength and substance, she cannot survive, she's fit only for an early death.

Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden, Surrey, UK

And yet I'm not suggesting that the singer thinks death is the right punishment for a woman whose vanity and good fortune have made her heedless.  The song proposes that freedom from an old life, where everything is provided for, may offer unimagined possibilities, vast new horizons, glorious change and difference. None of these possibilities is ever directly alluded to; it's the loss of the previous chains to the shallow, the unworthy and  the failed that is described  - clever that; for we can each fill in the advantages, and the fearful dangers, of being thrown out into the world, on our owns, for ourselves.

Better commentators than I have perceptively described the contributions made to the theme by the music, the voice, the other players and history.  The circumstances of the song's live presentation, the force of the response, the effect, the universality - all these are deep in the hearts of most of us in late middle age.  Perhaps it really was about stepping into the unknown, smelling the freedom, taking a chance.

The song is and was exciting, if you can identify most closely with the singer.  For the target, it's fierce, less about her freedom and more about a vindictive hardening fire.  Aloneness, total responsibility for yourself, no chance of interdependence, no kindness of mutual support.  All illusions smashed and only your big-headed, unkindly self to blame.

Undine Spragg from Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country, who  would step on her grandmother's head to get what she wants, embodies some kind of freedom and self-actualisation, in the ghastly jargon of the 1980s.  Her story is about how she knowingly flexes her powers - beauty, youth and low cunning, in the careless use and abuse of men who will help her.  She's Dylan's target character, but she heard the warnings and hardened early.  She takes control and lashes out first, never acquiring wisdom but getting what she wants. She's shallow and vulgar - but she never gets the punishment she seems to deserve.

It's hard not to take the song to heart, if you're female.  The protagonist feels the need to strip away the power of a young, lovely and foolishly arrogant woman, power she is less conscious of than he is.  She believes that anything she has been given was rightfully hers - it turns out that that is not the case.  The price is even higher because she is naive, young, lovely and unknowingly powerful.  It seems that if you're not going to be Undine Spragg, you'll end up as Lily Bart. Abuser or victim, take your choice.


So let's go back into the the garden at The Mount.  Feel the sense of welcome in the comfort of the terrace.  I found it captivating, a strange sense of entitlement filled me, created by the disposition of the terrace and the embraced grounds and view.  The most perfect welcome, to make you feel not just at home, but as though everything around you is your very own and  also the best it could possibly be. 

It's something to do with the convenience and protection of the balustrades, the wide, shallow garden and the sense of possession through the easy scanning of the eyes. The grandness and luxury seem perfectly reasonable, everything makes absolute sense, civilisation rules.  I feel quite sure I'd be capable of a little light banter over a complicated tea tray with a diplomat.  His siamese cat would probably curl up on my lap for an hour or two, while I jousted verbally and exquisitely through the long afternoon.

Watch out for my ostrich feathers, I think I'll just stroll down and take in that view again. Rather wild out there, beyond the manicured trees and lawns, it could even be a little threatening.  How clever of our hostess to create such a piquant scene!  One so suggestive, it seems to speak of the dangerous wild to us who are here, on the comfortable side.

Edith Wharton knew about the cold, the heat, and the fierce intractability of the landscape if you had to scratch a living from it.  She made it her business to find it out.  From this terrace we can see the rocky terrain, the thin soil, the distant wilderness where crops would have to be wrenched out of the soil.  In the garden easy, tough plants are used.  It's all about design and disposition.

The balance between the wild and the tamed is subtly managed, whether you're singing the song or sipping tea.  You're very close to your savage freedom, just on the edge; from the delicious comfort, you could almost touch it.  The maker of the garden, despite her enormous wealth, knew about compromising  with harsh realities, the songwriter knew about demolishing some threats, and embracing others.

The connections ramify, we must all find a place where we can manage to be, between the opposed forces. I'm not saying wealth and good fortune don't help.  But we all have to make our way and take some sort of responsibility; male or female, can you be kind and vulnerable as well?

Edith Wharton appreciated her advantages and worked hard, being the best she could be at everything she tried.  I don't imagine she was ever that good at making herself vulnerable.  The rejection she received when she tried, wildly, for a happy relationship was devastating.  So courage, intellect, good works, and strength of mind were her portion.  Her garden is a monument to that, a welcome to freedom, but a protection too.  Her novels are the same, easy to read but dense with significance about the human condition, even now.

As for the song, I've said my piece, and now I'll hold my tongue.  Like a woman who's finally beginning to catch on.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Fleeting - Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You

Today was delicious - sunny, mild, chirpy, busy.

Enter the new gardening season - Spring swept across the fields, and  through the dry bones of last year.  Sweet but peremptory, she ignored the muttered cries of  "too early" and "call that a winter?"

And I'm willing to try for unmitigated joy and cheerfulness.  But I know it won't work for long.  Prices must be paid.  No pleasure is unalloyed.  Time to get in there and point out the challenges of spring.

First of all, brevity.  The snowdrops are nearly over, finished and past already.   Some people enjoy discussing whether snowdrops are a winter or a spring flower.  I am not one of these.  They're on the cusp, between the two, obviously.  But as they swell their seeds and start to look heavier and more disorganised, I am reminded that they're not native and that the doubles are more impressive, and last longer.

But are they Bad Doubles that provide no nectar?  Can gardens repair the damage inflicted on wildlife by agriculture?   Wouldn't it be better to require agriculture to follow environmental practices? Are we being seduced by responsibility and duty? Can duty be pleasure?  I meant to be brief, but one thing leads to another.

Well I'll leave those questions hanging, like the pendulous flowers of the snowdrops. A little bit of research suggests that even the single ones are rarely used by insects, being awkward of access.  I'll leave it with you at this point, though we probably need an answer pretty quick, it being time to split and spread the clumps.

A plea for shrubs though; even camellias, singles or semi-doubles, attract plenty of foraging insects.  They're particularly suited to meaty great bumblebees, being in scale.  Winter-flowering honeysuckles too, lonicera purpusii for instance, seem to attract more insects than the  flowers so close to the ground.  Still I wouldn't say that my observation has been systematic or sustained.  Just a wild jab really.  Always keen to put in a word for the shrub, raised canopy where possible, shade lovers at their feet.

Brevity increases urgency.  The frogs seem to feel strongly about that.  To tell the truth I've become slightly embarrassed to walk near our pond, at one side of the house.  The desperate sudden halt in activity amongst the frogs suggests I am not wanted, you can feel them longing for me to just go AWAY.  They have no concern for the blushing observer of course - it's just that you need a bit of peace to have an orgy.  Their choices about where to leave the products of their couplings seem poorly thought through - I often have to rearrange it a bit, to avoid it drying out, heaped up as it is above the water level.

I find that, contrary to my gleaned information, frogs and newts seem to share the pond, although time may tell me something different. I have added three apparently duckweed-eating goldfish, with great trepidation, imagining a complete over-tipping of a  rather shaky balance.  So far all is well, if turbulent.

Time to announce the song - a simple one about a sleepover. Just as Spring alights, like a dancer on the year, promising to stay a little, offering everything she has for a limited time only, so Dylan's protagonist offers us his presence, ostensibly for a night, casting all plans and expected timings to the wind.

The title of the song is an announcement too - Tonight, I'll be Staying Here With You.  This song completed Nashville Skyline - an album where there is constant talk about nights and days, how to spend them, who to spend them with - good questions for anyone's life.

Anyway his mind seems to be made up; his ticket and suitcase are thrown away,  his seat offered to someone who really needs it and he appears content with his decision to give in to his desires and stay the night.  But for the person he is addressing, how can such a partial, temporary commitment feel?  One wonders whether it is more of a promise to stay or a threat to leave, or perhaps most accurately, a promise to leave.  As the announcement that he will stay is made, the questions are thrown into the air, just like the apparent arrival of spring in the UK.

So we started with brevity, and I remind myself of something that happens every year - spring, like age, speeds time up.  I know this is not news, but it's always shocking.  Suddenly I spot those circles of crocuses on the dual carriageway again.  They've been there for years, never increasing, though perhaps the colours thicken a little.  Council contractors mow round them till their leaves die down.  Perhaps they replenish them too.

Anyway, they last a moment only - I notice them one day beginning to open, phut, they're gone, the next thing is happening;  daffodils under the city walls, catkins lengthening and shaking in the wind, willows pale vibrant green.  Suddenly it's tulips and leaves everywhere, I've barely turned round, barely slept, what happened?  Where did it all go?  This year I mean to hang on, breathe, notice, be part of it all, but it's going again already, arrowing through time, flower to flower.  It's as fast as a song and about as long as a sleepless night.

It's probably the rapid succession of familiar events that causes this sense of time speeding up.  New experiences seem to lengthen time but known signposts and markers hurl you through it.  That awful query about the number of springs we have left to us, surely we have all wondered about that, and as quickly halted the wondering, turning to a surer comfort.  Here is one, a crocus I have mentioned before - sieberi tricolor, reliable and charming.  More telling than tommasianus, more delicate than the Dutch hybrids, just as fast of course.

For a gardener, spring is brief for another reason too - sheer pressure of stuff to do.  And that's my second drawback or problem.  One I don't plan to dwell on, it being a bit dull.  It's inescapable though - an edge of panic impedes the stately progress I plan to make, through the tasks and requirements of the moment.  Nothing to be done but get on with it.  Quickly!  Don't hang about!  Weed, plant, feed, mulch, sow seeds, move things, sort out, lay out, jump, run, delve.

And now the third challenge, the weather.  I'm not even talking about our lack of rain here or the unseasonable warmth.  No, it's that T. S. Eliot thing about the lilacs and the dead land.  Here I bring you a different quotation, which I hope you will enjoy for its piercing accuracy

"Those cruel drying March winds do so much terrible damage, or at least they put a finishing stroke to many a struggling invalid, shaken but not killed by the winter's frosts.  If only they could tide over another week or two the warmer ground would help along the growth of their new roots, and enough sap would run up to equalise their loss by transpiration......An aged cistus bush will often be the first to show the bill is coming in......I hate the grey sapless look of the pastures during this spell of dry cold, and the arrest of progress in the flower beds.  They look emptier than a week before, and plants seem to shrink, and ground turns lighter in colour and shows out more conspicuously."

This is from that beloved old Edwardian buffer, E. A. Bowles, of Myddelton House.  He wrote such interesting and readable books, three of them - Spring, Summer, and Autumn and Winter together.  He's  chatty, and kindly, and observant; he sometimes makes terrible jokes.  And he points things out like the one above, that place him right at your side, commiserating in a friendly but clever fashion.  I visited his garden, before its restoration.  It was packed, end to end, with scilla bifolia, never seen in such quantities before or since.  A little blue fuzz of flowers, like an azure ear of wheat.  I could almost see him bending down to introduce it to me, portly but beaming.

If cold, dry springs are bad, hot dry springs may be only slightly better.  We want succulence, turgidity, plumpness.That's why heather looks so inappropriate I think; they do not speak to us of youth, those tiny dry bells.

So brevity, urgency and fickleness, even if only of weather, are the themes of spring.  Our song deals in the same currencies, gently in the Nashville Skyline version.  But listen to the Rolling Thunder version on The Bootleg Series, volume 5.  Be prepared for a different song, one that is quite passionate, a commanding voice, almost threatening in its determination.  Be here now - that rather annoying phrase - takes on new life.  The singer's here for a short time, giving it everything he's got.

Sieze the day. Audience to the singer, gardener to the spring, grab it, make the most of it.  We don't have many you know.