Friday, 25 May 2012

Hurry The Rose - Seven Days

It won't last long but it's going to be wonderful, more wonderful than you can even imagine.It will transport you, it will pierce your heart, you will never forget the happiness and the pleasure.

The lovely luxury of anticipation of future joy does not come easily to those of us who prefer the safe-guards of pessimism.  But looking forward to something surely ought to be easy and frequent as it was, if you remember, when we were children and thought happiness was there for the grabbing.

Here's one that works for gardening adults, if they have the nous to allow it to themselves.  Not the true roses of summer; but the earliest roses of spring.  I'm already a little behindhand with this, so we're probably talking about next year, unless you're somewhere very cold.  And I do not have a comprehensive knowledge of them either; just a taste, of  a refined but true pleasure, limited but exquisite - you know, something you can congratulate yourself about.  And the pleasure in that is not to be underestimated.

Delicacy of flower and foliage is their hallmark.  Their moment is early May, with the fading tulips.  Small and often single, the flowers are scattered butterflies.  Sad to say, we left England too quickly for a full range; here we are in Italy amongst the full blowsy swing of glorious massed summer roses, set to flower till vanquished by the heat.

So my photographs are few, my anticipation has had no proper end this year.  But let's run through the ones I know best anyway, starting with Frulingsgold.


Long sensuous buds, the very heart of anticipation, for the translucent flowers are less shapely than one might imagine.  Of Frulingsmorgen, from the same stable, the reverse is true, the flowers beat the buds, the pink of sunrise, a warm cream heart, dark red stamens.  They open wide, too innocent to bear.

Then there's the famous rosa banksiae lutea, an absolute souffle' of a plant, but one can have too much souffle';  by June it's all over, major confusing pruning is required, the pale yellow storm breaks and recedes in a further wave of bright, pale foliage.  Easy to drown a shed or small house.  Over the years the one on my wall became more and more difficult to control.  Then I realised people only saw it if I specifically forced their gaze upwards, they were too close to appreciate a really high climber.  I declared defeat - these two are at the Savill Garden, they're either young or unbelievably well-managed.


Pompom de Paris is a favourite.  Scentless, tiny-leaved.  This one is small, for I dug it up last year ready to replant after building over its home.  Normally about 4 or 5 feet tall, 3 weeks of prettiness and personality - no-one ignores it, for it's sweeter than a rose has any right to be.

The China rose family offers many that open early and never close, till winter hits them on the head.  Here's one that offers itself only in Spring, to my knowledge, though it may behave differently elsewhere, as we all do.  I firmly believe it to be Sanguinea.  Floppy butterflies these, and the bush flutters with their brave red wings from every joint.  Three weeks only of tubercular fluttering, then they sink away, the whole plant disappearing into the background.

And here's the standard bearer for spring roses - Canary Bird.  Just to prove my point about the tulips.

I'm a bit surprised to remember that few of these roses have sensible hips but at least it means that they can leave fewer traces than most eagerly awaited events - their detritus can be pruned right back after flowering; the dirty crockery washed and put away.  Their moment has gone - all that looking foward, all that longing and waiting, all dropping and receding; the swell and the urge fading away; nothing left.

The song Seven Days now - I hope you've been longing and waiting for it too.  It's one exultant shout of anticipation.  It's on The Bootleg Series, Vols 1 - 3.  Dylan hurls himself into it, ullulating ( at last the chance to use that word) with excitement.  Again, it seems simple, seven days to wait before she arrives (on a train) and he'll be with her again.  Surely the song's about some sort of love?

I chose it for the spring roses, because that's what they're all about too - they're going to be so beautiful, I'm going to love them so much, quick, quick, check the buds every day, hoping for soon, hoping for more.  But the song examines that state of anticipation for us, appearing to be swept away but actually pulling it apart. 

We're straining forward, every nerve tense, how can we possibly be satisfied?  So focused, so lost to sense are we.  The protagonist invokes a potent memory of childhood anticipation, not defining it. Somehow it dissolves into adult romantic love - we can see they can be similar emotions.  All regular life, fighting and striving, boredom, feigning affection and loneliness - all those things are overwhelmed by  the fierce and triumphant cry of "Seven days". 

So connected to his inner child is he that he insists that he's been good while he's been waiting.  And as for the vaguely Guevaran touch of the "beautiful comrade from the north" that's not so much child-like as Utopian. The same wild innocence perhaps.  Hope and experience; muddling along together, thieving and kissing in the alley.  I love the song, though it has little purchase.  It seems thrown together but give it a chance - you may find it stays longer than expected, revealing unanticipated layers.

And try the roses too, if you have space, for you will be rewarded however badly you've behaved.  You'll steal a march on the bigger, blowsier roses, and you'll be satisfied, not fully, not for the whole season, but you'll have your own special graces and wild charms.  I leave you with a last suggestion - Rosa wilmottiae.  I only saw it once many years ago at Saling Hall I think.  Tiny leaves, the dancer's pose, masses of tiny flowers, sparkle, sparkle.  Perhaps my remembering imagination can enliven an imagined future for someone.  I certainly plan to have another go. 

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Consider The Weeds - Up To Me

As young people used to say when offered a vegetable; "That's rank". If the vegetable is large, leafy and limp, they're only being accurate and we are in a season of serious rankness here; lots of rain falling on heavy rich soil will produce a good bit of it, if not actual festering.

I have spent at least a week with that determined, exhausted Gone With The Wind feeling, raging against stacked odds.  Every garden I broach, full of purpose and plans, defeats me at the gate.  This is May, the most wonderful month of the year, despite that mysterious gap between the last tulip and the first rose or peony.  And yet the main focus has to be near the feet, searching out threats and menaces, like an agent of state security.

We can be entirely relativist about weeds -  they are a function of our own perception, they genuinely only exist where they need to be controlled, defined by their urgent need of removal.  However, their well-known talents, designed for success against the odds, outweigh this existential curse.

Human activity, particularly where soil is enriched, is entirely responsible for weeds.  That's a hard thought, we kind of imagine they're something to do with "nature".  Well they are, but it's a distorted, pumped, displaced version - an unnatural nature.

So we're straight into the song Up To Me, from Biograph.  Only a throwaway outtake, but full of mystery and meaning.  Exquisitely sung, every word clear, the story is incomprehensible.  The apparent history shifts through sands of regret and ruefulness.  There are losses, errors and missed connections in each of the sketched situations he half recounts, half fails to explain.  Taking responsibility, as he does at the end of every verse "I guess it must be up to me", the protagonist suggests that he might be even be wrong to do that.  But believing it is up to you helps you cope with difficulties, and move through mistakes.  The balm of imagined control.  Out with the weeds!

Gardeners operate in an Orwellian world of labelling and fancy language.  Any control of plant material must conceive of plants as weeds, just before destroying them, or "managing" them.  And if you're not controlling plants, however delicately, you're not gardening, you're probably strolling about, having a nice time, chatting and drinking wine, with a sun-hat on, like a person in a holiday brochure.  Good luck with that - you're not caught in this endless trap where the growth of plants is somehow up, or down, to you.

But look what you miss! Detecting, grubbing about, getting cross.  Feelings of defeat, remorse and confusion. Working out which ones really are the weeds, at this point in time, in this garden, and then the next step, what to do about them, and then, having done it, the self-congratulation and the garden, all clarified and beautiful, just as you imagined,  for five whole minutes.

Like many people, I actively enjoy messing about with bindweed and couch roots, getting as much as I can out of the ground; it's like fishing or camping, you focus on the simple thing in front of you, in this case nice bright white roots, which break, but not that easily.  You need warmish moist soil, time, the sun on your back - patiently tracing the roots back is as addictive as any computer game I imagine.  But I know this method doesn't really work with bindweed, though I extract what I can now, just to slow it down before using the bag treatment later in the year. (See earlier post Contrivances - Angelina, for details of the method).

Geum urbanum, goosegrass and an ash seedling

We do all roughly agree on the identity of certain weeds and the need for their removal.  The obvious ones to deal with now, this very week, especially if you've had some rain, in my gardens here at least, are, firstly; geum urbanum or wood avens, or herb bennet.

This plant goes too far.  It has defeated me in my parents garden, where I get too little time.  Thankfully, it's not huge, it's just a mid-green bore, seeding like crazy from nearly invisible flowers.  Will happily seed right into the middle of something you love. Easy to remove when damp, but numberless.

Next, goosegrass, WHEREVER it is seen, it's an insidious beast and will become far worse than you expect, when it's large and seedy.  Dragons' teeth. You will get no pleasure visually from a plant or shrub which harbours goosegrass.  I pull it out and compost it without worrying about getting the root out - it always breaks off but does not seem to resprout.  It reminds me of a water weed, wafting about in the air, so weak, so tenacious, so legion.

Tree seedlings; ash, sycamore (acer platanoides to us in the UK), hawthorn, privet, hazel.  They won't get smaller you know.  Their roots are already bigger than they are.  In a year or two you'll need a spade and 5 minutes worth of energy and focus.  You'll put it off till you've got both things at hand.  Oh, it's got away!  Add human behavioural analysis to the armoury of weeds.

Nettles, docks and dandelions.  Too obvious to mention, my plan is to eat a lot more dandelion leaves, maybe even going so far as to blanch them.  I have a touching belief that once you find something delicious, it will grow in ever more recherche' quantities, till you can barely find any at all.  Lambs lettuce is a bit like that.  I long for more, it cannot be found.

Of nettles and docks I do not speak, once again, moist soil will make you efficient.  Any you leave now will get worse and worse. Use a fork, don't fool yourself that pulling will get enough up.  You need to get about two thirds of a dock root out for it not to resprout.  Dandelions it seems can come again from a molecule.  But as you can hardly force your way through the floating seeds in the air at this time of the year, this is a plant you just have to work with.

Now, ground elder.  I gather I must eat this too.  I only have one garden where it is a real plague.  Strangely the owner seems unbothered, though it is right inside every plant.  I have set a thief to catch a thief in a one or two shady borders where it reigned supreme - the short white and blue comfrey.  To me this is preferable, offering a lot of nectar and just requiring a good tidy up after flowering to be attractive and restrainable.  And the ground elder seems to be reducing where they are.

Phlomis russelliana is worth trying.  I find it an excellent, effective weed excluder in sun or shade.  But who can say?  Perhaps this and the comfrey are both weeds too.  The first photograph shows it now, dense and solid but gradually extending its flowering stems. The second shows it in flower on the right - rather an indistinct yellow because of the light but in reality fairly telling.  It's nearly evergreen - that's why it works as a weed excluder.

Generally in the ground elder garden I keep weeding it out, wondering where I'm going, and why.  The effort is pretty pointless.  Ann Wareham used it as a complete ground cover in one area in her garden, clever, witty and sensible, other plants become weeds in that context.  There you are, language, perception, relativism.  But it's true, you wouldn't want a whole garden of it.  Strange how it doesn't grow much in the wild; whisper it, it's not native - gardeners are responsible.

My final bugbear is enchanter's nightshade, circaea lutetiana.  I have not found a good way of removing this.  It's another sort of water weed, the whole plant is wet and brittle.  It grows on heavy soil in shade, nearly transparent white roots, breaking as soon as you pull.  If you dig it up carefully you will find a vast fungoid network of them, bursting through the ground at intervals, inexorably advancing right amongst and inside other plants, inexplicably unpleasant.  You would think it didn't matter, it's so small and quiet at this time of the year.  But it does, it does.  Later, with its exquisite, microscopic flowers, it will stamp your garden with "uncared-for" and "weedy" as surely as any nettle.

And I disapprove of myself here, I don't really like to demonise a plant - it makes me less comfortable with my own role.  I'd like to be cool and slightly regretful as I intervene in the fight for survival.  May is when that fight is win or lose for the rest of the season - this is why weeds matter now and we have to make decisions and take action.

But I hope you see the relevance of the song, which is complex, simple, rueful, content, cool and warm.  It contains a great truth - you feel better when you're in control, if that involves being responsible, whatever concept you have of that is the price you might have to pay.  These ideas are the very stuff of grown-up life, the expression of a personality, the development of a conscience.

In the course of the song the singer works out, through a series of half-remembered situations, what he chose to let go, to offer and to do.  Everything appears to be measured against his belief that what he did and does is up to him, right or wrong.  He doesn't seem to hold anyone else responsible for what makes him sad - it's more a description of life's confusion, a manifesto of how to trace a possibly mistaken path through life's mistakes.

But this song faces us with the contradiction at the heart of Dylan's work - a contradiction I prefer to ignore, wishing to hear the work on its own merits, and fully believing it deserves that freedom.  The problem is that the biographical back story on this song, which I disdain to repeat, believing you either know it or you don't care, fills in some of the elisions, gaps and allusions. It's not unique in that of course, but the internal forces in this song, once you know them, pull the song apart, leaving it nearly dead on the floor, only its escaped and damaged roots capable of further life. 

For the song dissimulates, ending up as an expression of the opposite of the assumption of responsibility.  He's doing what we all do when we break up, telling his side of the story, expressing his hurt, showing how reasonable he is, how hard he tried.  It's fair, and he does it well, but it's not the whole story and as he clearly knows - it wasn't all up to him. Maybe that's why the song died in the water, being recorded only once or twice. I'm in deeper water myself here, I'll stagger to the bank, hang on to the overhanging weeds and haul myself out.

Weeding can seem such a simple mechanical dunder-headed task, but we do have to accept some responsibilities.  After thinking about the song, I feel compelled to self-laceration - my own garden is a raft of perilous plants, introduced by the very act of gardening and sometimes through my own foolish choices - geranium procurrens and euphorbia myrsinites Fens Ruby being only two.  Don't make me confess them all, I'll only make excuses.

At this time of year there are several plants that can cause dilemmas - their weediness is uncertain.  Honesty is one, forget-me-nots another.  Spanish bluebells, aquilegias, foxgloves, brunnera or pentaglottis, borage, lemon balm, hesperis, euphorbias, opium poppies, welsh poppies.  Everyone uses the word "editing" - it sounds less physical, definitely more cerebral. Whipping out a forget-me-not, or even a massive honesty, is indeed light work.  Aquilegias and pentaglottis(the lower blue one) are another matter. And just walk quickly past the welsh poppies.

Most of these plants are heavy seeders, remove them at will with a clear conscience.  They become weeds as the flowers go over, like alchemilla mollis, some geraniums and astrantias.  Weediness is not fixed through time it seems.  Best to rush round as they finish flowering and pull most of them out or at least cut the flowering heads off.  I do this with oriental hellebores, finding it strengthens the plants and helps them recede into an attractive ground cover, focusing on the attractive, almost tropical leaves.  In the end the timely cut is my main weapon against this sort of semi-weed, for I barely know how to use a hoe - the ground is covered, the soil is invisible.

Here are the nightmare seedling hellebore - lower right.  If they do ever get big enough to flower, they'll be a mixed and muddled murrey or beige.  They root well, hard and early. 

I don't worry about celandines - it's pointless.  They'll disappear about now.  However I often gather up the debris as it yellows and rots, thus carting away a good many bulbils. It won't make any diffference of course, and you must  be very careful not to drop them about.  Clever little celandine.

I don't worry too much about various vincas either, though I do remove quite a lot of their spreading limbs.  I say remove, I mean yank.  Go and get the right tools.

Enough with the weeds for the moment.  Like the song, the subject is nearly a lament, nearly a blueprint for coping with life, or a garden.  A weed can seem helpful, harmless and wise - I think of adorable sweet woodruff, galium or asperula odorata.  Many names, much affection - sweet-scented when dried  and so on.   But a little time past flowering, a little further enquiry into it's roots and you find yourself with another water-weedy mass of rank vegetable detritus.  The plant has upped and turned over, like Up To Me, and shown a hidden shabbiness and shame.

But the song still spoke the truth and did it sweetly, up until we looked beyond and beneath.  We all have to decide what's up to us, no one else can do it.

The fruits of our decisions will become our own responsibilities, like the massed weeds of future years, depending on what we decide to do now.  And indeed, all the time, for patience and tenacity are, for ever and ever, prime virtues in weeding.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Alarm and Despondency - Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)

Today I'm thinking about the anxious dispersal of bad things, of self-doubt, rumours and negativity, of worries, alarums and excursions. There's a lot of it about.  The feeling is of fearful hysteria, bouncing around inside and bursting out, as infectious as laughter but no fun, no fun at all.

I have a sane and clear-eyed way forward here - I'll step back, I'll coolly assess and consider the situation.  I'll balance and rationalise the odds.  Only then will I smash in with a polemical attack, fortified and sustained by my own hectic convictions.  I'm only talking about gardening remember.

And I want to talk about a sadly horrid fashion in planting (so much for the rational way forward).  It's the purple tree;  much loved I know and all across the so-called civilised world.  I'm sorry about your toes and feelings but no, no, no; enough with the purple trees.  Green is right, green is truth and beauty, green is harmony and grace.  Silvery green and grey can soften and differentiate, limey green can brighten, blackish green can deepen and shadow.  Shapes and textures define and fascinate.  What more do you want?

This is not a popular discussion.  Many to whom I have mentioned it have attempted to throw me over balustrades, into rivers and lakes.  How can I infect you with my flatulent and overstated opinions on this important topic?  Can I make you fear the copper beech, can I get you to breathe a sigh of relief as you skitter safely past a prunus pissardii nigra?  Could you be persuaded that the purple sycamore, acer platanoides Crimson King poses a threat?  To your happiness, your sense of joy, your natural right to greenness?  Even if I can make you miserable about them, what's the point when there's nothing you can do?

Well, let's try a few pictures.  First though, I'm not saying no purple foliage at all - low down it can be a lovely accent, can even make green more green.  This cotinus cogyggria, in a border in Kensington Gardens, looks good pruned low.  It will shoot up though, but the trees behind will continue to dominate, and the cotinus may not overwhelm.  The fact that it's lower than the hedge is strangely important.

This strong colour  needs to be kept in its place or the stain will spread, ruining everything.  We can perhaps deal with red wine on a carpet; but imagine it expanding across the ceiling, dripping down the walls.   I say wine, but you know what it really looks like, drying.  So when it comes to purple plants, not overhead, not bigger than ourselves.  Even in the distance, we can always see that these beetroot blobs are bigger than us.  The influence is felt.

Here, in the busy public gardens of Les Buttes-Chaumont in Paris, on the 1st of May, a public holiday, the sun shining, the air warming, they don't look so bad at a first glance.  We have a rather tatty prunus close to us, and three big copper beeches in the distance.

Now I'm down near the beech.

Apart from naked winter, this is these trees' least stentorian moment, when their colour is least saturated, their expansion least imperial.  We can experience them at their imposing, light-sucking worst in August, when even the fresher mid greens become darker and heavier.  So if just seeing such a tree, at this stage, is so disruptive to the harmony of the scene, what's it like to stand under one?  Soaking in the brown (for let's be honest about the colour), as it were, and looking out?

This is a truly well-used city park.  Just like they should be. You can see people breathing in the nature.
Now try standing under the green leaves:

I wonder if it feels any different to you.  Try the reality, for these purple trees are absolutely everywhere and see if you agree that the second is more comfortable.

We're simple beings, we mostly need a bit of lightness and brightness to feel at one with the world.  Our spirits will not lift with maroon or beetroot dominating the air and consuming all the radiance.    And my beef (and doesn't it sometimes look like raw beef) is mostly with public plantings, not so much with individual gardeners in their own gardens.   I'm delighted if they love any trees really.  And purple or brown trees are not inherently bad, they're perfectly capable of rational photosynthesis.  They just, to me, spread alarm and despondency.  Not what we need.  Not what I need might be more honest.

Ah, the song.  Pulsing with barely contained hysteria.  It's Where Are You Tonight from the album Street Legal.  It's bracketed additional title (Journey Through Dark Heat) strikes me as an appropriately purple passage.  I'm not smirking at the song though, not at all, it's one whose feeling I recognise and fear.  It's easy to infect one's own self with panic, the spillover to others is inevitable.  Calm can be hard to find and hold onto.  Working oneself up into a state sometimes seems inescapable, like a black hole sucking you in.  The calm and gentle greens count for nothing against those disruptive stains.

The protagonist of the song is burdened with his particular needs and understandings of the world and others.  They give him no release or comfort: some might call them misogynist, demanding or intransigent.  All his measures are desperate, he longs to be with this woman he calls for, but everything's wrong; she's either a stripper on a stage, or she's drifting, like a satellite, or she's in a rage, with a baby in her arms.  She has an all-knowing father, a boss, an unclean lover and partners in crime.  It's all very worrying, there's nothing to do but fight and fret and blame.

But the saddest thing in this song is the sense of a person who is hurting himself, throwing himself around, in despair.  It's strongly expressive, you can almost think that the frantic anxiety and the stress could not continue to mount, but they do, even as new trains of thought and images pile in.  It's also strongly unified, the density never lightens though the end purports to be a relief or an epiphany.  He has survived the dark night of the soul but still seems to be trapped without light.  There's a lot of hey-hey-heying at the end, as the female singers take over, but they sing without meaning.

This is not a song to listen to for fun, rather for a somewhat wearing sort of fight for mastery, but I recommend it. It's not only verbally and musically exciting, but there's a truth to it, a truth most of us could recognise - something to do with being our own worst enemy, not being able to manage ourselves or our emotions, longing for help and relief, fearing loss and dissolution.  He has self-knowledge, that seems to be his only advantage, but even that doesn't seem to help much. "Well I won't, but then again maybe I might".

I can hear a question in the song - does sadness make us bad, or badness make us sad?  And how do some people get away with the badness, and not get the sadness?  I added that last question, just wondering.

But this is a Dylan song - there are jokes in it; here's one to smile grimly at -
It felt out of place
My foot in his face
It's slightly overwhelmed by the later lines about the "juice running down my leg" but  a sly joke like this is perhaps the real leavener of the song.  As with the phrase "horseplay and disease", which are killing him by degrees,  I get a sense of reason, humour and humanity, lines in the sand against hysteria and fear. They're slender, wavering lines though; the infectiveness of the song as a whole is high and he sings us through and into an emotional state.

It's the spreading bloody clots of darkness that worry me about putting big purple trees in public gardens.  You might think, surely that's the last thing to worry about, what with the destruction of public services, climate change,  and every sort of crisis.  But I deal with what I think of, not what's rational.  And they can be irresistible, especially when young, beautifully grown and graceful.  A strong, emotionally demanding colour - that's what's so dangerous. Not that I like to overstate things, of course.

Here's a single young prunus pissardi nigra in beautiful Mondovi's public gardens.  Draw back and you will see a whole line of them, set against the border, where the ground falls away, threading along the path.

They're pretty now, and they will have had the most delightful pink blossom earlier.  They'll make a forceful, economical statement, colour and contrast throughout the summer.  But at what cost?  Will we all be sorry?  I see so many, often in lines like this,  in so many public places, and they will get large, and no less demanding and purple.  I see future gloom, an inturned gloom.

Here's a single older specimen in a garden I've been working on.  The steps have helped to draw the eye away, but the tree is always a dominating force.  And still at its early redder stage, within days it will be the fierce purple.

Life is hard enough; if we have the choice, let us not fill public spaces that should be green with purple, turning warm light into dark heat and melting verdancy into cosmic vacuums.   I have an alternative, the lovely cut-leaved ash, fraxinus angustifolia Raywood - graceful, bright, quick and green, then in autumn, red-purple.  All the drama, but with an end in sight.  Perfect.  No pictures, but easy to look up, reasonable and beautiful - dam the hysteria.