Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Step Inside - If You Gotta Go, Go Now


So you've never felt middle-aged enough to try actual gardening.  But recently, you've started thinking it might be nice to plant something  between the bins and the car parking space . 

Well, do your research, ask a qualified person.    Find out what you're supposed to do first, otherwise you'll get it all wrong.  And you must get it right, anything could happen if you don't get it right.  It's complicated, really complicated.

Making plants grow is a rarified activity and the tricks of it are only known to a few.   Find them out from someone who does it all right.  It's difficult; plants are like weird pets.  Dependent on you, but psychotically unreliable.   Prone to illness and death however hard you try to tempt them to live.

Don't expect gardening to be easy, it's going to be a herculean struggle.   It'll take hours and hours of really hard work every day, and far more knowledge and ability than you have.  Don't expect any of it to make sense either.  It's all different to anything you already know, it's got a special language and everything.

OK.  I bet you feel more confident now.  Especially as you weren't sure where to begin.

Wrenching my tongue from my cheek, I'll admit that helping other people with their gardening is not easy.  I have been as guilty as anyone else of over-complicating the matter, trying to answer the question I'm given as honestly as I can, rather than hearing the need or the intention behind it.  I can see that suspicious, thwarted look even now.  Refusal and abandonment are not far behind.

Speaks the poor innocent~
"I got this fabulous clematis.  I can plant it now can't I?"

Me ~
"Of course, you can plant it any time so long as you water it a lot if it's hot.  Oh, it's a sieboldiana, oh you don't often see them lasting well in gardens.  I've lost a few I think they're tenderer than people say, or maybe it's about drainage, most things are, anyway the pruning on that one is also rather unclear, some say group 2 some say 3. I don't think it survives long without pruning hard but you shouldn't just hack it back like the viticellas.  No, really it's not a good one to start with, better to try something else, there are lots of easier ones."

Poor innocent ~

The enquirer, a mere simple seeker after truth had not expected such confusion.  Hesitating at the threshold, this must seem like the moment to turn back and shut the door on this only slightly tempting new hobby.

And yet the gardening world, including myself, is full of concern about persuading people to join in.  New customers are needed for the industry, new ideas and new enthusiasts to pass it all on.  We're anxious about our fractured relationship with nature.  Gardening seems to offer a little reparative balm.  Who doesn't want havens for wildlife and kindly, caring people making everything better and more beautiful.

I'm not as jaundiced as I could be, but my eyes have a yellowish glow.  Some people like gardening, some don't, some come to like gardening.  I'm not sure it can be forced or whipped up for long, though there are times when it seems more popular than others. 

However there is no doubt that aligning it with a social activity works wonderfully well.  All those community gardens with team work and a sense of purpose - they can be highly successful and productive.  Ultimately though, for enthusiasts to continue, the flame needs to be lit and tended from within.  I expect that's true of all real learning, it's the idea of drawing something out rather than ramming a foreign body home.

It's perfectly clear that most people are drawn to gardening in the later years, when they have the wit to choose the really nice things in life.    Harassing children or young people to do it is absurd, though they should always be politely helped if they insist.  It's the same as anything else, if young people see proper adults enjoying it they may eventually choose it too when they're ready.

The song of the day is "If You Gotta Go, Go Now". It's not perhaps much appreciated now, seeming a bit pat, perhaps rather arrogant or even unkind.  But it is the first Dylan song that made an impact on me, and it may not even have been his version that I first heard  - I loved it but I didn't know it was his.  I'm convinced it was a cover by The Incredible String Band but I may be wrong about that, cannot track it down anyway.  So perhaps it was Fairport Convention, who sang it in a sprightly and winning way but in French.  I don't think that would have got through to me.  A swirling fog descends.  I can't believe it was the Manfred Mann version, which is rather smooth.  Let's opt for the Bootleg Series volumes 1 - 3 version for the moment.

Here's what I heard in the song.  And still hear, though much more dimly.  I was young, utterly puzzled by the world and what it wanted from me, or me from it, ready to believe anything, however unlikely.  My own good judgement seemed the most useless of tools, my femaleness seemed to distort and confuse every interaction.  Waiting to see what happened was often my first and only recourse.

So this song was a revelation. One person tells a second person that although he or she would like to have sex with that person, he or she is not willing to spend a lot of time working their way round to it but would like a decision immediately.  If the second person decides against it the first person would prefer them to leave straight away.

I didn't hear the put-down in the jokiness, though others told me it was there, coercive manipulation in another guise.  Even the singer wonders if he might be misinterpreted as disrespectful.  There is an undeniable element of cuteness, though it's aimed at the admiring listener rather than the "you" of the song.

For myself, I heard a sensible person, putting things in perspective and telling me that it was ok to think rationally, even in this fraught world of desire.  The self-interested agenda, the sleeping timetable, the turning out of lights and the shutting of doors - all that made it quite clear, the protagonist wants what he wants, he doesn't want to be messed about, he's not willing to make too much effort.  The cards are on the table, over to you. What do you want?

It's a wonderful thing when you can recognise and exercise freedom.  Sometimes it's there in front of you and you can't see it, conjuring constraints out of nowhere.  I was in that position, and this song opened up possibilities of choice and transaction in sexual relations that had been hidden from me, under some mysterious web of otherness.  Good heavens, we were human, both male and female.  My choices could be my own like his were his. I could relax and think about my own legitimate needs and wishes.

I'm not saying I suddenly became sensible, it took me years and I'm not sensible yet.  I'm just pointing out that this was an inclusive view of the world and the value of autonomy and freedom.  It was essentially helpful, warm and light.  And not to be found in any other song that I had ever heard, most being smeared over with a thick romantic grease. 

So now, brandishing this little jewel of personal agency and entitlement to choice, let's return to gardening and consider how it can work there.

My unpleasant homily at the top of this piece summarises much of the baggage that lies behind the passing on of knowledge about gardening. The learner looks like an incapable dim-wit faced with a world of impossibly complex knowledge and experience.  Choosing anything from this position would not be possible.  He or she is waiting to be told what's best.  Confidence to take the steps forward, to step inside a new world, that's what's needed.   Confidence in the self that is, not in the impressive knowledge of the teacher.

For the teacher feels equally outfaced, appalled by the distance there is to cover and the responsibility for covering it.  There's so much to pass on and everything's built on a rickety pile of other stuff.  Everywhere you look rules are being broken, or proven.  So you try and simplify by selecting, hardening and passing on the ones that seem to you to work.  You're imposing your own choices, you didn't mean to, but you've parasitized the will of the learner, and that's the only thing they ever had to guide them through, into the heart of the garden.

As for that clematis sieboldiana (sometimes florida sieboldii) of the earlier conversation with the poor innocent, here's a rather blurry picture of one that lasted two years when I planted it in someone's front garden.

It is  beautiful but dwindled beneath the trachelospermum - the evergreen climber with little white flowers, and I don't know if the owner ever pruned it.  Anyway, I think I should have answered the question posed about when to plant it and then held my tongue.  If people want to know more, they ask.  Until they ask they often cannot hear or make sense of the response.  And, let's face it, I didn't really know the answers to the questions I made up for them to think about.

Here are some good rules for the interested new gardener:

    There are lots of different ways of doing things in a garden. Be open-minded.
    Most plants are easy to grow and want to live but some will die.  Don't reproach yourself.
    There's a lot of unnecessary activity which people do because they like it.  Be sceptical.
    Take charge. Your own will, hands and brain are your essential tools and they're at your service.

I could have said be ruthless and persistent too.  Those help.  And you should indulge your innate love of pattern and order.  Do not underestimate the value of tidying up.  It's exactly like the inside of your house from that point of view.  Your garden will look better if you pick up every bit of plastic  and remove all the actual rubbish.  Start just with the tidying, ideas and thoughts will come.  You'll know how to find things out if you want to.  You're perfectly capable of going to a garden centre, picking out some plants and planting them.  Observe plants closely, the more you look, the more you'll see.  If they die, take an interest.  It's more information, not a cause to rend your garments.

Christopher Lloyd had a harsh little rule of his own.  He would not satisfy the curiosity of garden visitors who requested plant names unless they had pen and paper and physically wrote them down in front of him.  This was his way of conveying that they were responsible for their own learning and that they had to take ownership.  I thought it a bit ungenerous at the time but, thinking about it now, I see his reasoning.  A gardener who does not take responsibility for his or her own development will not develop.  No-one else can do it for you.

I'm sorry when I hear people decrying their own efforts and getting disheartened about what they see as failures, sadly and hopelessly searching for solutions .  For this we can blame an entire gardening industry which is invested in telling us that there's a proper way to do things and that if you do it right, it will work.  If it doesn't work, it's your fault.  Nonsense, there are all sorts of options, within certain basic requirements, and no-one can control everything.  Unless, that is, you grow your plants under scientifically managed conditions - and that would not be a garden at all.

When an activity is a recipe for self-reproach, enthusiasm dies.  It would be helpful if there was greater honesty about how many plants die for us all and less finicking about with prescriptive details.  People need more frankness and neutrality about the range of choices and methods available.  No gardener can do everything. Reducing effort and enjoying what you choose to do is as important as all those counsels of perfection.  We garden for ourselves, not because we're forced to, so we have to choose the way we like best.

Working out what's worth your time, how much you're going to shell out in effort and money, what you want in terms of rewards all sounds so unromantic and mercenary, but it's the stuff of life.  You need to find out what you need to know, amass your resources, direct your own learning and take charge of what you choose to do. That's our link with the song, which said the same thing about a very different subject.

Gardening should be seen as essentially a morally neutral activity, a choice taken in freedom.  It should be embraced as a chance to impose your own will on whatever little bit of the world you're able to get your hands on.  That's the point of it.  Step inside, enter the arena and be the gardener.

Still and all, if you're going to do it, wear those nitrile gloves.  Damaged hands will hurt and make you miserable.  Like the activity in the song it's supposed to be fun you know.

Friday, 1 November 2013

The Moment - In The Summertime

Well it's been a tough couple of weeks, for reasons too difficult to explain, and I look back to a month ago with an aching wistfulness for when everything seemed more or less alright.

Wish I'd properly been there, properly seized the moment, not just drifted along, unappreciative and half-awake.  Now I'm suffering the joint attacks of hope and apprehension.  I'm hyper-alert, all my sleepy complacency gone.  There's a piercing quality to everything I see,  movement is tense and slow.

In the normal course of events, when things are roughly OK, it seems to me that there is something faintly amiss with the way our eyes link us to our surroundings. We look where we are not, we can never quite be where we see. An ineffable slight detachment follows. Always fussing, never really feeling our own happiness except when we forget ourselves, lurking back there behind the visual organs.


Any garden-lover, any nature-lover, reaches for moments of heightened awareness.  Something strikes you, an arrangement of leaves and light perhaps, a grouping or a shape, a distance, a colour, a detail, a sense of enclosure, a feeling of mystery.  These are good drugs for the heart and soul.  We long to suck them in and possess them.

sedum acre, bark, stone

Somewhere or other

Gardening, at its heart, is an exercise in the capture and domestication of such moments.  But it is an exercise that is often foiled, often a let-down and a disappointment.  Rarely a true sorrow though: loss, threats and destruction are where sorrow lies, and gardening usually feels more like hope and creation.  Those illuminated moments are like fireflies, promises in the dark.

Side view of the famous steps at Naumkeag, MA

You don't have to pay much for those seconds of enraptured perception, only in longing and thwarted desire, even as they happen and pass.  You clutch your camera, you swear you'll remember: how it is, the hereness, the nowness, the sublimity.  I've plucked my harp on this subject before, believing in the transient sweetness and the way it links us to nature and causes us to garden.

Jenkyns Arboretum, Wayne PA


Here's the song -In The Summertime, from the album Shot Of Love.  A kindly harmonica, full of
hope and goodwill, a gentle little song about the clouds parting and a big old face peering through. There's a lot of bitter, confused and coded detail in between but none of it matters much.  The soft and shining sea has already, in the first few lines, put us somewhere in the realms of gold.

Time slows and stops, something is given, something is taken, never to be lost.  Despite the code, the song is straight and simple.  I think he means it.

I mean it too, though I must insist -  no face appears.  In my world, we're stuck, so sadly sometimes, with what we've got.

Jenkyns Arboretum, again

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Rigor Mortis - Tin Angel

I will sadly admit that sometimes I need saving from myself.  I thought I knew what to do and how to do it.  It seems not.  There I was, bravely intent upon disaster,  unstoppably heading down the wrong route to the wrong destination,

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Losing Garden - Cold Irons Bound

We've all had that nightmare vision of our own lonely deaths, our neglected corpses gnawed by domestic pets.

Part of that scenario would perhaps include the invasion of the garden into the house, ivy skittering across the ceiling, bindweed round the banisters, romneya coulteri  heaving up the floorboards.  Dirty green light wavering through the engulfed window-panes, great shrubs only feet from the house. There are smashed roof tiles on the grass, dislodged by giant wisteria and vast Russian vines.  Of course the grass is only there because it's mown once a fortnight by a sulky teenager, the space is getting smaller at every visit.

Friday, 26 July 2013

The Struggle - Working Man's Blues

Sometimes I’m sickened by the idea of the ornamental garden.  Especially big lonely ones where no-one is interested enough to go, apart from a man with a machine.  Huge, immaculate lawns worry me. Glittering unused swimming pools make me sad. Identical, showy, pointless plants in countless small gardens;  lack of imagination, thought, interest.  All that landscape fabric.  All that hard surface.  Artificial lawns, for God’s sake. Put it all down to wild-life sanctuaries or proper vegetable growing, let’s stop messing around turning everything into suburbia.  Love it, or live in a flat in a city with a balcony barbecue (is that possible? Perhaps I just made it up, for sheer rhetoric).
But I’m not sickened when someone makes an effort, even if I don’t like it and think they’ve got it wrong.  And even if they’ve taken on more than they can handle, so it’s all falling to bits. I don’t want them to get discouraged and fall by the wayside, I want them to find the pleasure again.  Because gardening out of choice, running your own little world, is also a huge luxury, one that has flourished for ever.  And I’ve always thought of people who never get the chance    a truly terrible deprivation, though not  perhaps Guantanomo Bay.

So today’s themes are work, survival and whether hard work makes better gardens, or better people.  I have a garden up my sleeve to illustrate my points.  It’s Veddw House Garden, whose gardener/owner, Anne Wareham, is irritable about the act of gardening, but loves a good result.  And my song is the mysterious Workingman’s Blues, where the struggle makes a victim of a sinner.  You can find it on the album Modern Times.   I think it will attract you, it has a lovely melody seemingly inappropriate to the theme, but all the better for that, sweetly enticing you to look some hard truths in the face.

Let’s take a look at the garden first.  I visited it a couple of years ago, so things may be different now.  It’s in border country, between England and Wales, in the Wye Valley.  A hunkered down cottage close to the bottom of a long slope.  On one side, at the back of the house, the slope forms a great bowl, heavily fringed with woods.  Anne has done a magnificent thing here, you see it and it seems so easy and obvious, so meant, that you think you yourself would have thought of it, or anyone would.  Not so, not like this anyhow.


From the woods, through a series of banked enclosed garden rooms and  rhythmic hedges, the green seems to drain down to an area of greater intensity, where close lines of yew form the pull and the stop to the flow.  Drain sounds bad, but it’s not, it’s a force field and a holding pattern.  There’s a formal pond at the base, reflecting the sky. 

The green strength flows down, but it does not drain away, it just intensifies and stills. You can sit  below this main event at the back of the house, looking slightly up at it, across a semi-circle of grass and between two exuberant, comfortable borders.

Being slightly outside lets you sense the pull, the flow and the stop without being dominated by the hedges.  To me it was one of those spots, not magic, not spiritual, just one of those places where the design creates a special feeling, of being contained and supported, of being fully here,  tickling the part of the brain that interprets place and surroundings.
But there’s more to this place than a significant spot, a relatively humble house and beautiful, complex and sophisticated grounds.  Anne has investigated local history and threaded some of her findings through the garden, including "gravestones" which give you names of locally significant but lost places.  There is also a short hedged replica of the mapping of the fields around, where people worked so hard against the odds, wresting potatoes from the land.  And there is writing – quite a long plaque with quotes about starvation and difficulty in the 1850s.  It’s beautifully calligraphed, in gold on black, paying full honour to those who lived around here in the past.  But it’s even better placed, by a fence with the wild woodland beyond, looking intractable.

I will admit, I normally dislike writing in gardens.  I don't like it on clothes, or food, or textiles either.  Purist you see, I like stuff to speak for itself, if it can.  But this plaque is both perfectly poignant and perfectly informative.

So you have a sense, from the humble, hunkered cottage, the complex weaving of boundaries, the death in the gravestones, the details of the names and shapes, you have a sense of the people who inhabited and worked this land in the past.  And then, from the higher edges of the hollowed land, you look across to the hills, and you see again the harshness of life for the working poor, before machinery, struggling up and down those slopes, “rearing up their cottages, with great toil and perseverance”, some drawn into petty frauds and thefts because of hunger, some dehumanised by their poverty, apparently in need of the guiding hand of religion.

So all these things add up, and you notice more that adds  to the theme, like the interesting black fences, neat and smart but also vaguely homespun and rackety. 

And the box balls down the steps.  They’re different than most, more like a Sunday School on benches, spreading into the aisles.  They have a homely, innocent look here, but  I fear age and grooming will have smartened them up.
The taller clipped yews amongst the gravestones have the placing and height of adults wandering in a cemetery.


The cotoneaster horizontalis here struck me as ramshackle and  humble too, crowded together.   I would have preferred it without the clematis.


And the empty-headed upper class blue hosta, luxuriating in a fancy over-attended party.  Just not my thing perhaps, but it should not be here, not so many, glaring bluely up at the sky.


The bergenia elsewhere is so much nicer, a decent green and a humbler plant, shining like kindness, working away in the shadows, near the foundations of an old collapsed cottage, now used as seating.


Most planting is perfectly in balance with the structure and the theme - foamy, grassy, gently wild-looking. Soft spray of smallish repeated flowers with nothing too showy or exotic.  Tall mauve campanulas (lactiflora), alchemilla mollis  and fireweed, or willow herb (epilobium angustifolia).  The plants are simple, the cover complete, forged from the wild, tipping back to the wild.  It looks as though it looks after itself but of course it doesn’t.  A glance at the plan shows how huge, unexpectedly symmetrical, and complex the whole garden is, with only two or three people working on it.  You can find it on the Veddw website.
So this is a garden that gives you something to think about in two ways.  First a reluctant gardener, who dislikes the activity but has the resolute energy to create a magnificent ornamental garden for its own sake and for her love of beauty.  Second, the creation is a garden which rejects the aristocratic paraphernalia of the English heritage school in favour of a loving recognition of all those who scratched a living, working themselves to death on these hills.  Some would have managed pretty well, and occasionally lifted their heads and gloried in leaves, air and light, watching the birds.  Some would have suffered from the first to the last.  Perhaps they were born out of their time and place, longing, without knowing it, for centrally-heated offices, public transport and coffee shops.

And I am not the person to say that that second group,  struggling with hunger and illness on top of the work, are lesser people than the first, struggling too.  I don’t believe it , genuinely not.  Mainly because of my own constitutional incapacities, which help me recognise the  extraordinary, completely foreign, abilities of others, in all sorts of indoor spheres.   But also because the Italian land where I partly live shows all the evidence of the decline and difficulty of a family maladapted to their destiny and time, shows it in land too damaged for hay to be cut, dying fruit trees, and the mess and confusion of rubbish and wasted building materials. 

Some people just don’t like working outside.  Some just do. I may be the latter but I will always seek the short cut and the easiest hand-based option - others, who want to, using the machines. 

I have met people who tell me that they finally feel able to admit that they don’t like gardening, have no patience or interest with it and feel a lot better for getting this criminal failure off their chest.  I see one of my sisters has become one of those.  There it is.

So let us leap freely to the song ,which doesn’t say any of that, but is rightly titled and mostly about hardship and poverty, the battle to keep going being the main thing.  The protagonist rattles about – from the railways, to working on ships, to farming and finally a penned animal slaughtered in a field.  He is always the victim of something, from the great economic forces that make his work suddenly worthless, to the fretters and fussers who don’t like the way he lives.  He nurses scattershot grudges as he struggles and fails. 

Not the easiest person to get along with,  leaving his boots and shoes all over the place,  dogmatic, insistent, slightly threatening, nagging everyone to hurry up, this working man is not an attractive character to me.  But I don’t deny his suffering, the gently sung song makes you feel tender towards his self-centred pain and his angry resilience in the face of oppression of every kind. He’s exhausted, lost and hungry: these are his blues.

It’s this kind of tenderness towards the agricultural workers of the past that Veddw House Garden seems to evoke, once you’ve read that plaque.  Yes, you could say we who view the garden and enjoy the theme – which is not the only one - are being sentimental, a little fanciful,  feeling a sweet trickle of pity posing as nostalgia.  But we’re always faced with that dilemma of not being quite authentic when we contemplate those who suffer privation.  We would not be them, not if we can help it.

The song raises questions about economic changes that ravage livelihoods but it places no real blame.   The world goes round again, the money getting shallower and weaker.   That’s a wonderful anthropomorphic image in the song – surely no-one has ever made economic depression so palpably enfeebling.  The working man wants to damage his nameless, ill-defined oppressors, but the song is not a call to arms, it’s a genuine song, about the market economy, the way things are, and ever have been, for the dispossessed are trapped into dependence on their exploiters.

Perhaps hard lives do indeed make hard people.  But I don’t think that  is always true.  Savio, the man who grazes his animals on our Italian land rises at 5 and often works till 10 at night.  He never has a holiday.  But equally he never raises his voice, to daughter, son or animal.  And despite the heat he has never not smiled when we talk.  There are many such, everywhere, and of course he is his own boss.  A degree of control makes most things bearable.


Let’s go back to the exhausted gardener, arms savaged by rose-thorns, nails blackened, filthy-footed, broken-backed, skin burnt and bitten.  All through choice.  Is this a good  way to carry on?   Many people here in Italy are clear that it is not.  I have been implored, by complete strangers, not to create too much work for myself.  Though I really don’t know how else to live, so I anxiously defend my right to take on more than I can handle. 

I do see that the heat can be discouraging, as can cold.  But, in the end, you don’t have to love it all, no-one could, not about anything; you just have to love it enough.   As Veddw House Garden shows – and I have not even begun on the beautiful, extensive plantings on the other side of the house – the end result may be good enough  to justify whatever labour is required and may even scotch the blues.  I don’t expect much from my results, and certainly nothing remotely comparable.  But I do know that working at my garden, admittedly mainly when I want to, will keep me cheerful.  That’s the absolute luxury of liking the work that you have to do.  Like most people,  I’d rather have that than caviar with cashmere and ambergris.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Lie Of The Land - 'Cross The Green Mountain

A rumour went round amongst our neighbours before we moved into our Italian house.  We were professional hot-air balloonists, set on running a hot-air ballooning school.  The lovely Italian word for these charming contraptions is mongolfieri, or mongolfiere in the singular.  Never had such a thing crossed my mind.    
This sudden, mistaken vision of a possible alternative existence was, for a moment or two, quite disorientating. I felt a bit of a heel disappointing everyone, almost as though I really ought to make more of an effort.  And like all of us, I could see the attraction of rising aloft, floating above it all - viewing the world from a bigger perspective. 

I implore you to listen to the wonderful ‘Cross The Green Mountain from the album Telltale Signs Vol 8 of The Bootleg Series.  It's not terribly well-known, for it was attached to a little-seen epic film about the American Civil War. Though the song is too long, it captures the sweep of a landscape and the moved and moving human eye and brain, expressed in the intimate voice at its centre. It seems sublimely relevant to my theme.

The sound of the song is cinematic or panoramic, extended rising and falling, hovering over the hills, tethered by something that sounds like a heartbeat.   Listen to how cleverly it marries time and space, swirling you back and forth in contemplation of the past, the present, the near and the far.  The vision sweeps from the ravaged lands and the dim Atlantic line to the blood-stained woods and the eyes of the merciful friend, ready to relieve you of your misery.  Heaven moves in and out of focus.  It's an ambitious song, and a real achievement, conjuring last moments, the fullness and the beauty, the sadness and the horror of life and war.

Could a garden ever reach that level of intensity?  I think of gardens that have moved me, some nearly to tears, but few, apart from those designed as memorial gardens, have made me sorry for pain and distress.  Maybe it's simply not within gardening's grasp, maybe I've just not looked for it. 

What I have felt however, as a gardening experience, is the looking through and beyond, to a view that looks like paradise, a new world, a place of peace and beauty given that extra significance by the framing, or the  management of the foreground.  You need a degree of detail in the distance, where fields and trees bask in the light; you need to feel you want to go there, but that the vision of it is also a wonder and a delight.

My own creative desires are more pedestrian, my reach and my grasp as equal as I can make them.  I hope to develop  a liveable and convincing garden on a piece of land where the views are variously dominating, from three sides of the house. 

In this photograph taken from above,  from the very top of the hill,  you can see how the house is set, half way down one side of a longish valley  The valley is much steeper and deeper than it looks here, because of the flattening effects of height and photography.

Attractive views pose problems for the gardener.  An effective garden succeeds by intensifying  the absolute here and now of a place but a good view keeps taking you out and away.  It's disorientating, looking into the distance.  Everything close seems like an interruption; all the interest and colour of a regular garden seems to clamour at your legs, while your attention floats away and beyond.  It's really a fight to the death between the near and the far, and you, the hapless gardener, must host and manage the battle.

I am unusually oppressed by interesting views  from the house on this piece of land.  To the West, we're forced to face the ancient hilltop town of Mondovi', or the section of it called Piazza, a place of palaces and monasteries, gazing back at us with a thousand eyes across that steep dark valley.

To the South, we can see right to the mountains on a good day, across to the old battlefield, at the far end of these graceful layered slopes.

And here is the view to the North, modern life in the distance but the lowest gentlest slopes and the most land which is actually under my control. 

My theme today depends on an underlying but ordinary idea - that one purpose of an interesting garden might be to connect to history and landscape, boiling it down and intensifying it, or reflecting on it, or just reminding you of it.  Always nice to have a big idea to work to,  though I shall mainly be guided by what's quickest and easiest.  Fatal.


A rather important Napoleonic battle happened here in 1796, just half a mile up the valley from us.  Here's a picture of it.  The painter, Bagetti, recorded all the battles on that particular campaign.  The historical references I have found all focus on the military details, nothing on the social history, so you have to imagine what it was really like, for the real people involved. 
It seems quite obvious now, hindsight working as it does, that that road snaking up from bottom right of the above picture, between the trees through the smoke, turning sharply right again straight into Mondovi' Piazza, up and over the protective ramparts, it seems obvious now that that would be the road to guard if you wanted to prevent an invasion.  There I've been drawn into tactics and strategy without even knowing it.

So that's where the battle took place.  The French were in the defeated town by early evening of April 21st 1796, plundering and wreaking havoc, at least until the municipal stores of food were released to them. Hard to know how the townspeople felt about it, or how much havoc was wreaked.  The ripples from the French Revolution had stirred the ambitions of ordinary people, all over Europe, whilst encouraging greater oppression and intransigence from the governing Savoy dynasty.  Civilians were used to being pawns in the game; their feelings may have been very mixed.
So perhaps few were involved in the actual fighting - it was a matter of mainly conscripted foreign troops battling other foreign troops - the King of Sardinia (and of Piemonte) and the Austrian Empire versus Napoleon.  Italian history is so riddled with competitive fiefdoms that I do not propose to expand upon it here (speaking as if I easily could, but just choose not to). I imagine that it was like the unnoticed fall of Icarus to the hard-working populace, until the French rushed through and took what they wanted.  Then, it must have been terrifying, and apart from pride, pointless to resist.  So the Governor surrendered, wisely as it turned out.  The next day or so, the troops moved on out into the Piemontese plains. The Austrians were severely chastened, the house of Savoy shown up, and the future of Europe nudged along.  Mondovi' was a theatre, not a prize. 
Anyway the point is, the battle that occurred earlier that first day took place at the end of "our" valley where the ridge carrying the road to Vicoforte crosses it.  The house we live in is situated further along the slope facing Mondovi' Piazza, behind those higher trees on the far right of the picture.  It's all quite recogniseable, despite the smoke and the death. 2,200 people died horribly  there, a strenuous throw of a stone from where I sit, wondering about connecting with the past. 

The song makes me think about how there's a strange refuge from present anxieties in the contemplation of past suffering.  How slippery and unreliable historical empathy is. The song both knows it, and uses it.  The elegaic beauty of the circling melody softens the horrors of slaughter and violence, of cold and hunger.  It's not just about an American Civil War battle, and a General shot in confusion by his own anxious men, it's a song about every inevitable apocalypse, arising from being human and alive.

Strangely it gives you a sense of peace and safety - for the main point of view is the calmly swooping eye.  Fear and panic seem to have been transcended as if nothing worse than this could happen.  That's the comfort I suppose, what's done is done; the past is another country and the suffering is over.  Is that a kind of paradise, where misery is ended? 

Now, in thinking about my garden and this battle I'm not imagining myself embarking on ambitious topiary representations of the cavalry.   Or ranging mathematically ordered regiments of shaped hornbeams charging up the hill.   Or planting ranks of bronze phormiums amongst rivers of scarlet salvia to express the bayonetting.  It's enough to understand the topography, know a little history and recognise the closeness and the surprisingly easy accessibility of the town.

I have a plan to level the ground at the South-facing side of the house, which you see above,  into three simple rising terraces at right angles to the house.  They will face the town and follow its line.  So you'll be able to turn your back on it when you want to look at my planned planting, dispersed along the terraces, relatively low and subtle.  Or you can turn again and sit amongst those plants as you contemplate the town. Not complicated.  Respectfully acknowledges what's been there for centuries.  Nothing obscured, nothing restrained by enclosure.  If you need to you can easily run down into the woods by the stream and hope no-one wants to hunt you down and fight you to the death.

Well that sounds good, whether it will add up to a nice place to be in remains to be seen. Low-growing plants which place no barriers as you look out will be at a premium, but anything tall will need a bank behind it if it's not to distract and annoy.  We'll have to increase the number of accessible banks - there's a chance for that at the back of the house where you're automatically turned away from the views.   Of course, once you have walked down to the lower levels of the garden there are plenty of banks behind you, some are so steep that even the donkeys tread delicately and look awkward.

Perhaps those upper terraces will be my chance to explore the world of alpines.  Sometimes that definition seems to mean "Grows anywhere sunny.  Short."   Sometimes it means "Requires constant deep snow-cover from December to March.  Must have perfect drainage and remain evenly moist whilst open to the wind and sun. Sulks and dies if thwarted."  

I think I'll stick with the first category - the easy ones - alpine phloxes, saponarias, anemones, all those species bulbs, small geraniums - start there and expand into more interesting things as I get used to the conditions. 

My main worry about the plan is that the terraces will look a bit brutalist extending straight out like landing strips from the building.  But I have never planned a garden yet where I wasn't anxious about whether it would work.  Sometimes you have to make it happen just to confirm that you were right to worry.


But of course, I must have a few trees and shrubs.  On the North side of the house the view, part of which is in the photograph above, extends across our land as it opens out into a wider lower area, crossed by an occasional stream.  It's a bit of a trudge down there, so first we have to create a path and a direction, which will help focus the eye.  Just by the house there will be a steep, close slope, deeply shaded, where we can have some good leaves and cool flowers - hydrangea petiolaris, pale clematis, heuchera villosa, aster tradescantii, some shiny evergreens if I can find something to put up with the winters.  That may mean the flatter laurels and lonicera pileata.

Just beyond that, is the chance for trees, partly to gain a little privacy from our neighbours, who will see their leafy tops, partly for those same leafy tops to obscure the distant industrial estate, glinting in the sun.  I hope the trunks will bend elegantly about, creating a pattern and a frame against the closer views of our land. Something graceful and quick - I yearn for celtis australis, but no-one seems to have heard of it.

So that's it really, no point going on and on about it. The song is one or two verses too long, and I would happily dispense with the Walt Whitman one about a letter to the mother of a supposedly wounded soldier who's actually already dead.  Cruel misinformation always flourishes in war and I'm sorry about it, but the verse is a bit maudlin, betraying the otherwise beautiful allusiveness.  Nothing could destroy the way the music, the words and the voice work together in the rest of the song though.  It lifts you away.

View at Morris Arboretum PA, USA

Monday, 29 April 2013

The Consequences of Wisteria - Lay Lady Lay


I feel such a heel sometimes.  Like a grumpy kill-joy, smashing illusions and fantasies.  When people (sorry, I mean women) confide in me that they love wisteria I get this uncontrollable rictus of the face.  My mouth stiffens and my eyes harden.  Something ghastly comes out of my mouth.

Sometimes I say, "Well of course you do, everyone does." I try to bite back the comment about how it's like world-peace, or creme brulee, or spring.  Sometimes I make a feeble start on the practical considerations discussion but that doesn't go anywhere - a pall settles on us both and backing away ensues.  I have to admit that it all adds up to me looking like I don't love wisteria, and God knows what that makes me.

Now I don't know if people (women) feel the same affection for the song Lay Lady Lay, from Nashville Skyline.  Mainly because I've only discussed it a couple of times in my whole life, unlike the wisteria, which seems to happen at least once a week.  Still, you can all see the connection between the plant and the song can't you, beflowered stone towers, long hair from a high window, courtly love on the furniture.

 Wisteria after flowering

Wisteria, unlike courtly love, is marvellous for disease resistance. It's a vast limp and bendy tree, easily flattened against a wall (again, unlike courtly love) and very harmonious with its bright green leaves, gentle grey stems and lilac or white flowers.  The hanging down of the flowers is the coup de grace and reflects the loveable pliability of the whole plant. That appearance, of loveable pliability, is the key to the song as well as the plant. 

Unmanaged wisteria.

I read Petrarch and Dante's La Vita Nuova as a young woman and gulped their version of courtly love down, like a fish.  I knew it was the other side of the coin of religion-fuelled fighting and war - but who cared?  Apparently men could fall in love with you on the basis of a single glance, and then they would do whatever you wanted. Excellent idea!  Incomprehensible, but excellent.  Somehow, feverishly, almost in a panic, I hybridised that notion with Greer-influenced feminism and the possibility of righteous indignation.  Result - to say the very least, confusion.

At the same time, I looked round and saw I was not alone in my knightly quest.  Everyone had long hair, those sort of circlets round their heads, a misty, floaty look. We weren't "dressing up" like they do nowadays.  We were thinking of resisting an unfair society, poor innocents that we were, not quite spotting how the freedom and the love fitted in together with it all.

I wonder if that odd pre-Raphaelite resurgence is explicable.  We'd had Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot and Melanie in a long frock, the Rolling stones singing that Lady Jane song.  Our mothers were often irritable domestic tyrants, freed after the war to reign in the private sphere. Many were annoyed at having been chased back to the home by the male domination of the public realm.

We new women didn't want the domestic rage, so we wanted to get out of the home-centred life.  But for some of us, there was a glass ceiling round our brains.  This "lady" notion seemed to refer to a private world of simultaneous leisure and influence.  Much nicer, insidious and unreal, but much nicer.

My generation thought we could have real choices, we would be luckier and free of the worst of patriarchy.  This song seemed to say we deserved this kind of flattering love as well, at no cost.  We never noticed how little life or character this lady had, or that the song was all about the man, his insistence, his truth, his need and energy.  He goes so far as to tell us that when we prostrate ourselves the world will begin.

And that word "lady".  I remember my shock when I first heard it, from another woman, said in all seriousness to describe some man's girlfriend.  "His lady".  What?  I thought we had been fighting for the right to be women, now we're allowed to use this word ourselves?  I expect I sound a bit shrill.  And? 

So I'm giving at least some of the blame for my confusion to this song. I'm nothing if not fair.  I was shocked that it came from the person who seemed to have sung, so excitingly, about sex as an honest negotiation between equals, rather than a manipulative game   So that was all an illusion, perhaps a game itself.  Here we were, stuck in a castle, sewing nettle shirts and being lovely.  But it was OK!  We could have our cake and eat it too!

The supplicant troubadour is not a friend, nor an equal companion in this joint enterprise of laying (I know) on his big brass bed.   And the sound of the song - enticing foreplay but a bit schlocky really, admit it, you know exactly where it's going.

I don't mind the voice at all, indeed I rather like it but the whole thing makes me uncomfortable.  As people have often said, the bed almost has a life of its own, certainly more presence and personality than the dim lady, who can't see the colours in her own mind.  And the supplicant troubadour is terribly pleased with himself.

Right, now I've unkindly picked holes in a very pretty song let's turn to the equally pretty wisteria, and recognise its many assets.  It's one of the mainstays of our gardening imagination: add delphiniums, a magnolia, lavender, roses and box - you've got a classy and desireable garden.  Nothing wrong with it.  Like another version of romantic love, it can look fresh and so right, to every new generation.

Wisteria is virtually indestructible once started;  you might have to wait for it to balance itself out and you'll have to prune it, from the word go, and more than you ever imagined.  But if it settles down, gets enough sunshine and water, and learns to flower, you will obviously be entirely happy.

You'll put it in the front garden and people will stop you in the street to express their appreciation and admiration.  You'll feel proud and hold your head up high. You'll prune it again, and again.  At first you'll follow the instructions, twice a year in July and February, back to five buds in the summer, then back to two or three in winter.   You'll realise you're creating flowering spurs and you'll understand which are leaf buds and which contain flowers.

You'll become more slapdash, swearing as you reinforce the wiring or the trellis for it to hang on to, cursing as you haul its long feelers out of the drainpipes and from under the roof tiles.  One day, as you get out the ladder, you'll look at it and wonder.  You'll realise it's a long time since you just enjoyed it -  the whole thing has become a relationship based on benefits conferred, you haven't had a good laugh with it for ages.

And you may well be male (clue - ladder) doing it for the woman in your life.  See the horrible thing I'm doing with this?  One of the consequences of wisteria, and the wistful, listless damsel in the song, may be increased, unbalanced dependence on the male, a dependence he may have neither the will nor the ability to meet, even if he thought it's what he wanted.  And then he will annoy us.  We don't mean it, but that's the way it can work out. And sometimes we bring it on ourselves.  Do you want a living, growing symbol in your garden?

Of course wisteria can be managed, more easily and well, up a post, constantly tipped and checked, never extending itself, lapping up heat, light and water. It will still be more beautiful than anything else when it flowers. I don't deny this. Chinese varieties, sinensis, flower slightly before their leaves appear. Floribunda varieties, the Japanese, tend to be be later and leafier in flower.

If the word "macrobotrys " appears, that should indicate extremely long racemes of flower.  Those varieties are at the far end of the exquisite demands of desire.   That pale pink one above, so poorly photographed, and clearly visible from the Bridge of Sighs at St Johns College, Cambridge, UK, may not be one of those, but still quickens the pulse.

Sometimes I think wisteria is like an advertisement for gardening.  It's a public plant, succeeding best on large walls and beautiful ancient facades.  In a smaller garden, or on a regular fence, it doesn't always convince.  But if you pass by a beautifully-pruned and managed wisteria outside someone's house, you'll feel its magnetic pull.  Inspirational, ideal gardening, everyone can see the point.  I hesitate to use the words trophy wife, but there it is, couldn't stop myself.

Gardening needs spectacular, legendary plants in a domestic setting if it is to fire the imagination of a generally not terribly interested populace.  But there are a lot of wisteriae about - you're not obliged to have your own.  If you're female you won't necessarily want to hear this, I know that.

In the part of Italy where I partly live, wisteria is used slightly differently, on pergolas and other supports, far less on walls.  It is meant as much to create shade in summer as for its flowers.  It's in lots of ordinary gardens but somehow less noticeable, the flowering lasts well into the leafing phase, blending into everything else.


Except for this one.  Perhaps a double, lacks charm really.

Here below, in this public-looking extravaganza of a property, wisteria is the principal decorative plant, running along the top of every piece of construction.  Slightly out of this world but appropriate in this house, where you can't quite imagine ordinary people live.  You can see the flowers on the right.  It's not a special kind, but the way it has been used strikes me as rather effective, especially given that there is nothing in  competition with it.  Sometimes I feel that's the key: wisteria let loose is too gardenesque and overwhelming to go with other flowering plants. 

Narcissi at its feet would not go amiss of course.  The symbolic value never ends.

This next picture shows wisteria given its head, allowed to ramp up a tree until its vegetative growth reached enough light to trigger flower formation naturally.  I think it comes from Magnolia Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina.  I remember seeing plenty of escaped plants around there, covering acres of woodland, high in the trees, their blooms a bit pallid and scrawny.  This one looks like a selected variety.  But it's pretty big, my photograph does not do its reach justice.

Grafted and named varieties are obviously the thing to get if you are to enjoy the particular rare beauty of the wisteria you imagined.  But be aware that your plant might also be a battleground.  If an unnoticed shoot from under the graft develops it will vigorously overwhelm the demure, helpless beauty above it.  Then you will have that sad and pointless object, a wisteria that refuses to flower.  So you need to be on top of the baby wisteria from the word go, nipping it and checking it, constantly keeping its mind on the job of growing up and becoming the languid beauty we all desire.

Better, especially against the dark.  They're fussier about background than you might think..
Why is it women who buy all the wisteria?  Why is it women who love this song most?   I don't blame us, for who would have  expected either fantastical symbol, plant or song, to turn out to matter?  In the world of major machine-driven maintenance that gardening turns out to be, or in that other "real" gender-sensitive world of business, competition and finance, the occasional demanding climber or a little courtly love don't add much to the imbalance between men and women.

But I have solutions up my sleeve for both anyway.  Not to solve the imbalances - my trust is in the the new breed of wideawake women for that - just to deal with the self-entrapping wisteria and the song itself.

For the song, hunt out and listen to the Hard Rain version.  The whole album is supreme but this rendition of the song, which becomes bawdy and rampant, leaves no listener in any doubt.  This is the uncourtliest of love, rewritten to yank a willing woman off the dance floor and quickly upstairs.  Love is not the issue here, but a real choice is explicitly offered.  It's another truth, just as real, one it's important for any woman to take account of and address, preferably before she makes that big brass bed and lies on it.  And a much livelier song, with Rob Stoner (I think) helping belt it out, like a companion hoodlum.  When I listen to this, I don't feel my bones and will weakening, that has to be a plus.

For the wisteria, well I assume we're talking about a wall or fence in a domestic garden here.  I suggest being much more active and brutal with the pruning than you ever thought you could be.  You can keep it as a single line even, at the right level, developing spurs all along.  Cut everything away that doesn't conform to the shape you want.  Train it hard.  Never let it tell you how gentle, harmless and romantic it is.

Just to prove  how much control is possible.

All this control seems like holding the wisteria back, perhaps you're preventing it from reaching its potential. But its mind is filled with nonsense so don't give it any quarter.  There is no adored and helpless damsel, there is no creepy, minstrel saviour, nor any loving rescue.  I'm telling my young self, not you of course

So let's be practical.  Think of the two metre high boundary of your garden as the wall of a room.  You're standing furniture against it as well as papering the wall and putting some lights and paintings up.  So go for buttresses and clipped shapes, augmented with carefully managed decorative deciduous shrubs and perennials.  Use pots and blocks to raise things up against the wall.  Make a picture of it, with variety and balance.

Fit the wisteria in if the wall is sunny: make it live properly, with others, not drifting selfishly all over the place.  Add appropriate trellis, mirrors, grilles, sculpted heads, whatever you like.  Just make sure you use the whole height, starting from the base, rather than hanging, like hair, in a great bunch from the top.  Gardening on the walls, it's all the go.

Those decorative deciduous shrubs won't leave you with great ropy stems tangling upwards.  Once you've worked out whether flowers come on unflowered wood made last year (so cut out some flowered branches from the base and pin the new ones back) or on older wood like wisteria (so cut out the extension growth you don't need) you will find the pruning an interesting and rewarding exercise.  Cut out all growth pointing away from the wall, whenever it catches your eye.  Can be fun, even.  Better than wiping surfaces and cleaning paintwork anyway.  I rarely see it done as it could be, people are always in a rush to cover their fences with big climbers and I have been the same. 

Once, many years ago I visited a garden where senecio greyii, hibiscus, deutzia and corokia had been used in this way.  The elderly lady who cared for it said she had done it naturally, because she liked pruning.  It was arty and interesting, with many seasons of interest.   You might prefer to apply yourself to apples and pears, but philadelphus, dipelta, exochorda, berberis, chaenomeles obviously, virtually any small tree or shrub that accepts repeated pruning could be espaliered and used like this.  All under your control, ladders only if you want them, the only price attention, care and a certain amount of self-belief to meet the challenge.  I'm sorry I have no inspirational photographs, I hope you can see it in your mind's eye. 

So let's drag that damsel out of the flower-clad turret to engage in her own fulfilment.  May she recognise that what looks and feels like power over the susceptible male is nothing more than hopeful fantasy, its consequences utterly unsure.  Let her be wary of the consequences of wisteria.  May she enjoy that bed if she wants to, and may she claim the colour-vision for herself.

Let honesty and delight flourish.   Clearly, I'm being subjunctive, heaven forbid I should be shrill or bossy, as you know, I'm much too loveable and pliable for that.