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.

The reality of the neglected or abandoned plot is very different from the lost, the secret or the forgotten gardens of our childhood imaginations, when we were the discoverer or the interloper.  We imagined ourselves gazing around enchantedly.  Ivy-draped statues romantically disposed here and there, lilacs and lilies blooming undeterred.  We were undaunted then by fears of death or illness, or by the real ravages of time and neglect.  We did not think of those who had gone from the garden, for we were the heroes, creeping round gates, under fallen branches and past the abandoned rooms of empty houses.

As a child I was quite good at slipping into other people's gardens and looking around, but if they were too far gone there was little pleasure, only mess and sadness.  To find a treasure was the point; in one I remember an enormous, very leafy, magnolia soulangeana blooming with huge pinky white flowers.  Vast scented cups, too magical to be anything other than fabulously rare.

I was easily pleased, a little structure, a dark concrete ornament, a dank empty pool, anything like that would give me a thrill.  If all else failed, a flyblown rose or some golden rod seemed precious, surviving against the odds.

There was another magical moment, when I came across a box-edged parterre-like garden in the midst of ranks of large crowded trees.  Somebody was still trimming and planting, despite the advancing woodland.  The hedges seemed waist-high, but I was young and short.  Sunlight fell on the opened space, leaves glittered.  I remember flowers and colour too but cannot identify them in my minds-eye film.  Something stopped - could have been time, could have been my heart.  Those signs of human care were like a secret romance..

Back to the other end of this train of thought, the latter end, the one to come.  When we become the people in the house, impotently gazing at the over-bearing growth.  The garden we have so lovingly created is collapsing.  We should have moved somewhere with a patio and a few pots long ago, it's all too much and there's no-one to help.

For me this is an everyday issue.  I assist with several gardens where the owners love them dearly but are prevented by age or incapacity from working on them.  It is a heartening task, to bring pleasure and order, but the conundrum remains and bullets must be bitten.  My parents garden is the one I choose as a salutary example, the song to go with it is Cold Irons Bound from the album Time Out Of Mind.  If you know the song you might be horrified by my cold-hearted gall.  I am too, a bit.

The garden was created and planted by my mother.  My father, her faithful companion, helped her then, just as he helps her now.  They're chained old crocks, running down together.

Large apple trees and the rockery existed when they moved to this house and garden about 18 years ago.

7 years ago

My mother loved plants and quickly filled any spare spaces in the style of the British gardener, with many different varieties.  It became ever more capacious and complex until she was struck with a stroke nine years ago.  Since then she has not been able to speak or indeed move much, so gardening, which was her joy and mainstay, has simply floated away, out of reach, out of mind.

And the garden, which is not small, has become An Issue.  Not one with an easy solution, and saddest of  all, the heart has gone out of it.  A left side brain stroke has a couple of strange effects, hitting language, musical appreciation  and the right hand side of the body.   I wouldn't have imagined the loss of music, but it turned out to be true,  And the sad fact is that her interest in plants and gardening also seems to have died, gone like a dream.  She humours me if I bring flowers in, or chat to her about what I'm doing out there but I see no real interest in her eyes.  My father wants no real changes, and both are more interested in the birds than the plants.  So it's hard to know what the garden is for any more.

Now I'm not moaning.  Or am I moaning?  On her behalf perhaps. I don't mean to, there is no point and some of the difficulty of the garden issue is, for me, self-inflicted.  Several people work on it, the lawn is mown once a fortnight, the hedges cut twice a year.  Sometimes the hedge cutters come and whack back the bigger shrubs and trees, spring and autumn. A sister or two trim the topiary, which is quite a commitment. The rest is more or less my responsibility and I manage 4 or 5 hours every fifth weekend, between Friday and Sunday.

It is interesting to see how the garden has survived under this regime - it is never watered, never fed or mulched: we aim at keeping it tidy, wildlife-friendly and most of all, back.  Plants are never added, though I filled the vegetable garden with this and that at the beginning, just to cover the ground. A shrub or tree here and there has been removed, for different reasons, but there is a sense of stasis and resistance.  Everything's going downhill as we try to keep it as it was. Very little is flowering in the photograph above and that is not how it was meant to be.

My mothers planting stood up very well for the first few years, though I was there a little more often then, once every 4 weeks, and perhaps more determined too.  It was never planted as an easy-care, wipe-down garden  and it has not loved the neglect.  Whisper it, I never liked the conifers, the eucalyptus, the rockery, or the pond and patio, child of my time as I am. 

Before I tell you more, here's a first - Cold Irons Bound on video.  Give it a go.  Sorry about the ad.

Now what did you think?  Setting aside the hat of course.  I accept it's not an immediately appealing song though it rocks along well.  But it's the strangeness, the dour marionette at the centre, the sense of post devastation mystery that you might find compelling.  Or maybe not.  But there's that feeling of being stuck, chained and shackled, yet being on your way somewhere, somewhere that promises nothing more.  Loss and only loss. Surely you like that?  Sorry again.  I see this is not cheerful.

And I will admit, age-appropriateness slightly militates against the angst of unrequited love.  Perhaps that's intentional - there is no warmth in this song, such as you might get from passion.  This is the most chilling despair.  Try the Time Out Of Mind version where he sings as if from the bottom of an ice-cold well.  Frozen metal, rattling along in a cage.  It might make you glad that things aren't as bad as all that.  My mother may well beg to differ.

Anyway we can pick a couple of lines out of the song that fit our decaying garden case.  Some things do last longer than you think they will.   There are some things you can never kill.   Even when the garden you made is disappearing into a dark and pointless muddle, some plants remain, rising above the doom and the wreckage to flower every year.  I'm not talking about the shrubs - they'll carry on while there is enough light, although it is hard for me to swallow my irritation when other people come and helpfully prune them to blobs just when they've produced next year's flowering wood, just when it would be best to leave them.  That's the self-inflicted bit of the Garden Issue, here I have to back off, not worry and let it go.  So hard.

So, back to the plants that you can never kill and may continue to flower, despite neglect and weeds, at least in the centre of England on a kind of gritty, neutral clay.  They need to be able to move,  running gently to where there is still some light, so their roots are often deep and quite thick.  That gives them a bit of storage capacity, which sees them through drought and difficulty.  I don't know how they respond to serious cold and zoning has now ramified into new definitions, but we're talking about anything down to the American zone 6. 

Here's elecampane or inula hookeri, gradually expanding, smothered in yellow flowers in July and August.  Nice flowers too, like little suns.  And though couch grass and that little barbed weed, geum urbanum have invaded everywhere else, I did not see them in the inula, which suckers and expands, with gentle determination.  You can see it glowing away at the far top right in the big picture of the garden above.

There is another Inula, called magnifica, which I remember seeing as the main plant in a huge rock garden at Chatsworth of all places, used everywhere, like an under-gardener.  That looks good even when only in leaf, magisterial almost.  Interestingly coarse, especially as you don't see it everywhere.

Camassia leichtleinii, admittedly a mess after flowering, but holding its ground.

Here it is - almost the only thing left in a border apart from the sweet woodruff happily running about at its feet.  I think there's still an eryngium and an oriental poppy too, neither doing very well.  That escallonia is withering sadly.  This photograph was taken with nice light in May, this border has already had its best moment.  I try to prevent the red shooted, magenta-flowered geranium psilostemon from seeding here.  I have seen an entire garden covered in those, with huge roots. Of course many geraniums are unnkillable and bent on expansion.  This is not one I would choose to allow - it's irredeemably coarse, though I still don't quite know how I would define that characteristic.

I know I said I woudn't include shrubs, but here is one very like a perennial, built by suckering shoots from the base.  It's the white Hydrangea arborescens Annabelle, and like a perennial, it can be chopped to the ground each spring.  It gives little succour to wildlife, but bouffes up well.  That's "bouffes".  You can see it in the picture below.

I would like to like the regular tansy, tanacetum, as it has overrun a shady area, but cannot really love it with its petalless yellow daisies.  It is self supporting and the ferny foliage is pretty.  But come on, it's a weed.  There is however a yellow-leafed version, called Isla Gold.  It  is lovely and  provides colour for ages if you like that sort of thing from a leaf.

You will already know about Japanese anemones - I see my mother felt as I do about them and stayed her hand.  Just too leafy and imperialist perhaps.  I find them coarse too, though I still don't know what that means.  I'd much rather have acanthus,  the common old montbretia and hemerocallis fulva.  All reliable semi-weeds in this climate.  But none of these will look attractive if you don't cut them back once a year, like the everlasting alchemilla.  And if you let the woodland of cornus, hazel, ash and sycamores return the garden will more or less disappear.

Here are a couple more reasonably attractive thugs, big plants, not easy to mix with shrubs.  They are rampantly unmanageable from one point of view, great strong survivors from another. Macleaya, the plume poppy, and persicaria, or bistort.  Add a front rank of pale pink saponaria (alba flore plena - see picture below this one) and you have a collection of bullies, bullying each other with a pinkish glow, even without much sun or water. Funny that a lot of this sort of invincible flowerer blooms in the dog days of August, when we think nothing will do. 

And here is my most alarming bully, creeping everywhere, under paving, popping across lawns, inexorable, honey-scented, attracting no insects that I'm aware of.  It's euphorbia cyparissias and acts like a firm of assassins, smothering every low grower in its path.  It's all over the rockery, and beyond, now.  My fault, I gave the first piece to my mother and she trustfully accepted it.  It flowers in May, when I do my best to rip it out.

I sometimes wonder whether my mother's loss of interest is her solution to coping with her physical inability to do anything about the garden herself.  She cannot engage physically with it and all the joy has fled.   Pointless yearning for something lost is a hard way to do your time, but it's what the song is all about.

So, Cold Irons Bound, back to that.  I'm less sure now that the longing for love is misplaced - perhaps that the whole point.  It's not the right time for sexual passion - the old are supposed to be past it, it's undignified.  But perhaps it will not let you go,  it clings and grows, unwanted and excessive, though the body ages, the wrinkles ramify and the structure collapses.  There's no good way out, the whole thing's a trap, taking you further into a bigger trap.

These not terribly beautiful plants I have been cataloguing are like the remnants of the idea of a garden. The song painfully confronts the remnants of love, doomed and out of time. It is indeed a sad thing to see beauty decay and sadder still to feel your heart torn away.  Thank heavens there's  a good song about it, presented with odd but absolute panache.


  1. Invaluable, knowing what persists. Some of my already favourites! I seem to like 'coarse' - Graham Stuart Thomas called helianthus coarse I think - maybe it's a recommendation..
    I live with this question - how will we manage as we age. Because while our garden is not full of fussy gardening, the gardening to be done is usually major tough jobs.Would be good to hear from more people about far end gardens and what happens, what survives and if anyone can keep them happily. If you don't need all those hundreds of different plants..
    Went to a decaying garden this summer, which we had known when it was well cared for. It was at a tipping point: still much to enjoy and a pervading feeling of sadness in the dying..
    O - if only life went the other way round, from age to youth!

  2. The arguments against having too many kinds of plants mount up, I sincerely believe I've learnt my lesson now. You're right that it would be good to hear more experiences of aging gardens. Mostly we talk about starting them off and setting them up. It doesn't take long for a rethink to be required.

    Thanks for your comment. Major tough jobs sounds hard but perhaps they'll keep you younger longer. At least you've produced something to be proud of.

  3. Thanks, Jane. The tough jobs may wreck me too..! Good to say hello. XXXX