Monday, 27 October 2014

Losing The Will - Ain't talkin'

"Better to strangle a child in its cradle than nurse unacted desires".  If we followed that idea to the letter we'd be slaughtering our nearest and dearest, and throwing ourselves from high ledges.  We'd be snatching hot chips from other peoples' plates and roaring about at great speed in ridiculous cars.

That nursing though is familiar.   Most of us come to some sort of accommodation with our own desires, ending up wanting to have those things we can easily get, or wanting to do what we ought anyway.  All we need is to know what those things are.

I started writing this in late August.  I've equivocated, turning round and round on myself, unable to commit.   I've not quite known what I've wanted to do and I've not wanted it enough. Time has slipped away and it is now the beginning of October.  And it's not just about committing myself to the page.  It's also been two months of horticultural self-control, holding  myself back, letting myself out little by little, when I can, when I can get away with it.  The effort and the indecision have worn me out.  I'm fit for nothing.

The issue is cutting back perennials, the new unspoken heresy.  Where once we fiddled about, dead-heading and sprucing up throughout the summer, then tidied up in autumn, shamelessly, now such behaviour is airily dismissed.  Cutting back is an unsound, immoral practice, cruel to wildlife, pointless hard work and foolishly unappreciative of the delicate filigree of frost on seedheads.  Tidiness is neurotic, we should be cool and free-spirited, tossing our hair and living and letting live.  I try, but it doesn't seem to be quite the way I want to garden.

And can it be true even?  Surely most gardeners are secretly surgically enhancing their gardens?  They just don't like to admit it.  You exercise your exquisite choice in your planting and walk briskly away, making the least you can of the dreary job of maintenance.  Simultaneous ease and beauty is offered by the so-called New Perennial Movement, where everything proclaims itself to flower "all summer", endlessly, blissfully, no human intervention needed.  Cutting back is quite clearly both vicious and unnecessary.

Now, I don't like my own tone here, not one bit.  I'm feeling defensive and sarcastic.  Mad old bat ranting, perfect for today's song which is Ain't Talkin'. Without being too picky, the easily accessible version I really like is the so-called alternate one on Tell Tale Signs,Volume 8 of The Bootleg Series.

For once, we're in a genuinely horticultural setting, though the garden might be Gethsemane, which would somewhat reduce the actual gardening relevance, if relevance was what truly interested us.  Anyway, there are wounded flowers dangling from the vine, it seems like there's mess and confusion everywhere.  An unmistakeable fin de saison feeling. The exhausted, miserable protagonist, viewing this sad, gardened world at a propulsive walking pace, is unsure how to engage with it.

He decides to keep his own counsel, though obscurely attacked by an unknown assailant.  He then breaks his own self-denying ordinance, chatting away through the song about what it feels like, what he sees, what he believes, what's happened to him and what he wishes to do about it.  He runs through the options, getting nowhere.  He cannot act on his decisions, even the one not to talk.  Loving his neighbour, doing good to others, slaughtering his enemies and avenging his father all seem like possibilities, all remote, all floating out of his grasp.  He has no sense of agency, floating mysterious and vague in a world he's not even sure is round.

I don't like that expression, "a sense of agency" but I can't think of another that summarises an active relationship to the world and doesn't press down too hard on the control pedal.  As in life, so in gardening, balancing the control, managing the power, backing off at appropriate moments, easing forward to fiddle about with secateurs and shears at others. None of us should long for absurd amounts of power, there's no fun in suppression we hope. But equally what misery to be entirely without control, a recipe for a low mood if ever there was one.

I have a theory, flimsy but ineradicable, like purslane (with which my Italian garden is uncontrollably afflicted, and with which I shall have to learn how to live).  My theory is that if you make selective, continuous dead-heading and cutting back your primary horticultural activity you will find gardening an easy, rewarding and pleasurable thing to do.  If you insist on living with sad weedy remains falling about and making everything look a mess, you will wonder why you bother.   Obviously I'm not promoting a manicured sterility, you do have to have lots of plants, intimately close, flowering at different times, to earn your natural rights of interference. 

Can you detect where the cutting back and tidying have happened?

Let aesthetic satisfaction dictate what you do: if it offends you (and you must be prepared to be attentive enough to be offended), cut it out.  Sensitively of course; we're not talking about mindless hacking, go back to new leaf buds, even if they're at soil level.  Remove the bedraggled and the gone over.  95 per cent of the time the plant will grow back better, perhaps flower again, produce fresh new leaves, all will be well. You should have something else ready to spring up, maybe to flower now.  The whole garden will look more cared for, as if the gardener hadn't gone and without the sadness of complete abandonment. Not to overdo it though - we like the would be, could be, nearly natural look.  Walking along the edge of that particular razor is the very heart of enjoyable gardening.  The sort where you can hardly bear to go in at the end of the day, you so love what you have done, you feel so at home in your own world.

Not so in the song, where the impotent hard-pressed protagonist has been struck sharply on the back. Maybe someone's tried to stab him.  He drifts about, noticing that everything's a hopeless mess.

He lacks persistence, his thoughts bend and buckle round him, holding him back from dealing with his sea of troubles. Hypotheses, provisos, threats, jokes, regrets - they're all distancing manoeuvres, he's avoiding and fleeing engagement, not speaking, but going on and on about it, walking fleetly into the distance. He's neither here nor there, skittering off and away. Even when the Queen of Love crosses his path, on a hot summer day, a hot summer lawn, and she so beguiling and magnificent, he accosts her only to explain that there's no-one around.

Like Hamlet, the protagonist shilly-shallies and plays around with words.  But he walks away, accepting exile. He knows there is little point in damaging further a damaged world. "In the human heart, an evil spirit can dwell". Little point then in opposition, even against a sea of troubles. Convictions are wrapped round the seeds of violent destruction, better hold your tongue and make your escape. 

Now this terrifically moody song, backed by a delicate musical figure, raises some ancient questions about beliefs and action. We're not looking at cowardice here, though we're all afraid these days. We're looking at something more ambiguous - the way certainty falters the more you think, the way scepticism amounts to an inability to act, or to know when it would be helpful and necessary to do so.

Fortunately we don't have to deal with all that and can make our own escape into a little gentle horticultural surgery, down the primrose path. Follow my prescription for continuous cutting back from springtime onwards and you'll start to love gardening, you'll find it a most charmingly active, but harmless, wielding of your own will.  You learn to define plants, one against the other, you learn tricks to prolong and stagger their blooming, subtly differentiating your styles and moments of intervention, and you'll encourage second or even third bursts of bloom.  You create space, order and an air of restful aplomb.  Things rise and fall in their time and as they fall you graciously help them off the scene.  You don't leave them lying over everyone else, choking the conversation like drunks at a party. You are the perfect host, bringing out the best in your guests, helping each to sparkle and contribute.  Nudging, peace-making, grooming, introducing, scheming, containing and calming - these are your skills.  Radical dead-heading that makes the whole garden better, week on week and year on year. It's as interesting and complicated as you like to make it.  And of course you leave some seedheads. Your choice.

So, that's my theory.  And I'm not about to abandon my faith in it, even though there is little enough in the gardening media these days to encourage or support such gentle perversity.  Cutting back anything, especially in autumn is treated like a shameful, unnatural vice.  You are encouraged to strim everything down in one great hit in spring, having left it untouched to overwinter. You are positively deterred from making a move amongst your plants from July onwards.  And I do genuinely see that continual disturbance may disrupt insect life cycles.  We both curtail and maximise nature in gardens, somehow we have to find our accommodations with that.

For autumn, I'm not advocating the complete reduction to flat mulched brown in October that you used to see in borders.  A garden where you cut back the tall, leafy, collapsing plant, leaving only seedheads that you really want, letting the light in, will putter on attractively in the UK, right into December.  It will then blend seamlessly into the bulbs, arums and hellebores of early spring.  I highly value low evergreen perennials like tellima, bergenia, liriope, luzula and ajuga for keeping the soil clothed and cheered but they need the deciduous mess above and around them removed, incrementally, if they are to shine, in their time, as we would all wish to do. Give them a chance to step forward, a succession of individuals working together, not an unruly mob, followed by a great smiting.

Same spot, more space, more depth

Even in the small garden the advice is to postpone the smiting, simply averting your gaze, until the spring, when everything will be piercing through the rotting blanket of tall perennials (still the coolest plants) and you can quickly and casually whip off the remaining stiffened stems.

But those untouched, tall, damp, stemmy messes easily dominate small spaces.  In large gardens you can stand back from the abandoned shambles and make it look gardened by surrounding it with smart low hedges or strips of mown grass. In the little garden however, murk and depression can hover over the overweening muddle, through the dark days.  And for how many gardens will those months allow perennial weeds to flourish beyond bounds, when you could have seen and neatly eliminated them as they were born, as you tidied and cut.  I see I'm going on and on. Time to start walking.

OK, I hope I've made my point, despite the ranting.  That might be my favourite thing about the song, the way it engages with the ifs and buts of the recalcitrant, outpaced self.  For more practical advice you can turn to Tracey Di Sabato Aust's book on cutting back perennials.

It's not an inspiringly attractive book, but if you need confident instruction to help you make decisions about how and what to cut back when, this is a comprehensive help.  And she is based in Ohio, where the climate is truly continental.  Sometimes I have wondered if my superseded ways relate only to temperate climates where we can glory in mixed evergreens along with herbaceous perennials. Perhaps a harsher, more extreme climate dictates greater smitings.

My new garden in Italy, which I planted a bit last autumn, a bit this spring, is presenting me with challenges above and beyond those I face in the UK because of the hotter summers and supposedly colder winters. Last winter was not that cold though, and this summer not that hot. Nor dry. So everything's out of joint and abnormal. I've learnt less than I'd hoped and am faced with a confusion of possible actions.   We might get masses of snow, under which small animals will burrow about, eating anything they can, especially keen on stripping bark.

Alpine plants tend to get eaten back before the snows so is severe trimming in order?  Or should old branchy bits be left for protection?  I have a mixture of Mediterranean (herby types), steppe plants(peonies, oriental poppies, iris), prairie plants (echinacea, liatris, gaura, asters) and alpine plants (dianthus, erodiums, sedum, sempervivum).   I have weeds that seed without let or mercy - erigeron anuus, portulaca oleracea, burdocks, fierce unknown grasses, oxalis and potentillas.  So many have burrs and sharp hooks. I need to clean more ground and cover it with plants.  Cutting back is no kind of answer to at this stage.  Frantic planting is the only way to go, and I'm back to my old tricks of planting lots of different things, trying to find out what will do well in the long term.

So here I am, my old abandoned faith still burning, wondering how to make it work here, where the altars come thick and fast along the road, but offer me no help.  I quite sympathise with the sad and desperate song where the poor protagonist, a strange mixture of Christ, Ovid and Hamlet, is out of options, out of joint, way out on a lonely limb, but I must admit that there's something rather sulky about the decision to stop talking. Not that it isn't a good idea, especially when you find yourself left behind as the relentless march of change overwhelms your most cherished affections. The future looms alarmingly. 

Oh well.  I have no solutions to offer, only a belief  that another year or two will see me confident and committed again. Maybe I will be led forward and time will see me dancing about with a strimmer. A few easy swipes and the job will be done.

I see the honoured Piet Oudolf suggests that my methods of cutting back continuously constitute a pretence that it is always spring, trying to fool the plants, myself and everyone else. (See Dream Plants for the Natural Garden by Piet Oudolf and Henk Gerritsen).  This had not occurred to me, but fair enough, perhaps I'm clinging to what's left of my youth.   My hand hesitates and falls to my side sometimes, when I think something may need the protection of its own dying remains, or will be weakened if it loses too much too soon, and has to make another effort, or when I think small creatures may like them to live in or eat: still, I'm not prepared to feel guilty for wanting a garden to look good and doing my best to make it so. I'm a gardener, that's what gardening is.   I'm quite responsible you know, goodness, I don't want you to think I sling the pesticide about.  Or prevent the easy movement of hedgehogs.

Admittedly I do like the comfort of green in winter, as my English garden so wrong-headedly shows. Oudolf suggests this preference is a psychologically unhealthy failure to accept death and decay.  He should listen to Ain't Talkin' - then he would know there is not only bright easy life and dark falling death, there is also that mid-zone, the one where we often find ourselves.  We're in a mystic ungardened garden, where the thrumming music pushes us along.  The direction is unclear.  We're all alone, considering and hesitating, the unsure victims of this weary world of woe, shot through with the flying wheels of heaven.   Time will  carry us, whether we like it or not.  But who says we shouldn't tidy up a bit?  Start with those dangling wounded flowers.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Placing People - Brownsville Girl

Here's a picture of Sido, mother of the French writer Colette.  She was immortalised in the latter's books as the archetypal mother-gardener, coaxing blossoms from dead twigs, growth and abundance from all that lives.

I have a sharp image of her in my head - it could almost be a memory of my own - of her hurling a bunch of white violets over the wall to her neighbour, who yearns to be able to grow them equally well.  She turns around her walled garden, a place of magic and drama.  She heals a cat, caresses a child and wherever she walks, peonies open and lilies bloom.  Regal but fecund - an improbable ideal of a woman.  I scoff, but she's in my head, I will never be free of her.

I have a neighbour in Italy who bears a resemblance to Sido, for she is queenly but nurturing, always surrounded by dogs and children.   Anna grows vegetables, loves her plants and views mine with genuine interest and enthusiasm.  Her life has been hard and is not much improved now, she tells me stories of her own childhood and mourns her own mother, who used to call for her nine children and receive no answer, the older boys having prevailed upon the younger ones to be silent, for fun and badness.  Now I'm confused - for the same story was told of Sido, calling for her young.

Anna is observant and precise.  She might pee in the hedgerows as she makes her rounds, gathering snails, wild strawberries and mixed herbs, but she has natural dignity.  If I appear to be making mistakes she points the matter out, firmly and coolly, reining in her usual warmth. I find myself keen to please her

I have another neighbour, I'll call her Carla, with the most intense, coal-black eyes.  She can nail you to the wall with them as she tells her tales of excitement and outrage.  Carla overlooks the back of our house, from the top of the hill.  When I say "overlooks", what I really mean is "has cut a large hole in her previously completely enclosing conifer hedge in order to have a perfect sightline to our house at all times especially when she and her partner are seated on the terrace".

I don't mind this at all, in fact I might be tempted to do the same thing in her position, though I would probably aim for greater subtlety.  And I would not have had that sort of hedge in the first place.  And my first thoughts as a garden maker are all about eliminating disruption to the bucolic view so I would have been more likely to open it up to something I thought of as "beautiful" rather than just dramatically promising.

Sorry Carla, I think we are not animated enough to form a satisfactory visual attraction.  We have visitors sometimes, but we don't do anything very exciting apart from eat on the balcony when it's warm enough and walk about on various minor domestic missions, bending to garden.  A little building continues but it's not thrilling at this stage.  Twice a day various people arrive to tend the donkeys, the sheep and the goats.  Activity enlivens the landscape, I can see her point and we may, at first, have seemed a lot more unusual and exotic than we are.  Perhaps we ought to try and put on a bit more of a show.  We'll have to stage a fight or a tragedy, a little mayhem, maybe some naked dancing, we'll have to see what we can do.

Carla's strong voice floats down from the top of the hill and I find myself wondering what will ensue.  You can never tell, she might be perfectly happy, or she might  rush down urgently to tell us something dramatic or horrifying.  She seems to find my activities, particularly my gardening, baffling and astonishing, especially my funny little collections of struggling near-wildflowers.  She has her own garden, but it is not flowery. It's hardy palms, a swimming pool, so-called English lawn, and conifers.  She is amazed at the amount of work I seem intent on creating for myself, especially to no edible purpose.  Today, the light of dawning understanding crossed her face and she announced that what I actually had was a "hobby", a way of passing the time.  Finally.  The first step to making sense of my story, I suppose.

Now I've got a lot to fit in to today and I'll turn quickly to the song and the way it chimes in with the general theme of a populated landscape.  A human being or two, and some outside space - those are the true raw materials of a garden.

So listen to Brownsville Girl, from the album Knocked Out Loaded.  I hope you will enjoy it, as I always do, from the first note to the last, despite it being a bit of a novelty turn.  But it has reach and size too.  It's like a great camera zooming in and out, with changes in depth and space, sudden turns and longs shots.  There's a brain chatting away to you from behind the camera, commenting on the action, wondering about the meaning, even wondering what else there could be to talk about.  And perhaps most of all, wondering about the power of myth and story to invade and populate our minds, in this case in the form of film.  A person in a landscape is nearly already a story.  The camera circles round, lapping it up.

It's quite a long song, but you would not have imagined, till you count them, that there are at least seven stories in it.  First the person who would see any film with Gregory Peck in it, but can't remember which one he is thinking about, then the one about the young gunfighter, who shoots the old and now has to live in perpetual fear that he too will be toppled, by old avengers, or new pretenders.  Then there's the one about mad love and destiny, pulling two lovers together, hurtling them across the desert only to rip them apart.  That slides into two stories, the fabulous platform heel wearer, who demands a rendez-vous in the desert and sweeps the singer along, into the heat, or another love, lost and barely to be mentioned.

Then there's Ruby, hanging out the washing, longing to be somewhere else, unable to leave.  Stuck out on the edge of town finding nothing she really wants.  There's another story about a man of mystery who leaves clues but the wrong name.  None of these stories is about gardening but you can see each person in their place, the way the light falls, the colours, the way it's all disposed.  The situations beget the stories.


In the background there's another story, that of a songwriter looking for things to write about and unable to escape from the settings and plots of old films.  He succeeds with the song, we see the filmed worlds he evokes for ourselves, we feel the heat and dust.  The seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies, before our very eyes.

Of his stories, the one about Ruby calls most directly to my theme.  She seems beached in her setting, a mile out of town in a wrecking yard.  She has not made it her own but suffers, longing get away.  Her origin is Persephone perhaps,  in Hades.

She could of course try a little gardening, for anyone who makes a garden is laying claim to where they are.  They're taking it on, making what they can of it, accepting their fate and trying for some mastery.  A person who makes a garden in a place of blight and neglect tells their own contagiously hopeful story.  That's my advice to Ruby, wash fewer clothes.  Plant something you like the look of instead.  Unleash your inner Demeter, follow your heritage.  Tell a different tale.

But my first theme comes from two directions.  I'm not just saying people need gardens.  I'm also saying gardens need people.  We forget that sometimes, seeing photo after photo of pristine horticultural gorgeousness, beautifully captured from a step-ladder in a hedge at 5.30 in the morning.  Easy to imagine that we're looking at a peaceful, personal paradise where the only eyes are our own, or a perfectly picked companion.  But imagine that, truly.  You might see something else slithering past.

I remember talking to a woman in England, the possessor of a huge, fairly grand and historic garden, to which she gladly gave most of her life.  She told me that there would be no point in it at all if it weren't for the visitors - she didn't think she did it for them, but without them it would have no meaning.  I applaud her, recognising that the other side of that honourable picture is herds of tourists, falling out of coaches, demanding cake and loos.  Badly and brightly dressed, standing about with their cameras, asking the wrong questions, ruining the view.  Their stories seem to be few, their connection to the place necessarily limited.  But the whole concern, all the different contributors, running about, preparing and chatting, working and annoying each other - that's the real beating heart surely, those are the stars, the people with the meaning.  A garden like that is a workplace too, with all that that signifies, even if it's only for a day or two a year.

A garden without people, with only the maker, can be a very lonely place, constantly demanding to know what its own point is.  The obsession to create with plants can become a place to unravel, to retreat and as you retreat, to fall.  I have always thought that British women have a rather worrying tendency in this direction although I expect that that's rather parochial of me.  There are plenty of examples of lonely, angry old bats of all genders, rearing up from the shrubbery, barely capable of ordinary civility.  I don't want that to be my own story, and when I have worked for people like that I have felt my soul shrivel, however gorgeous the garden.  I like a bit of to and fro, some laughing and screeching, some proper talking, some life.

My first theme, about gardens, people and needs, was reflected in the song by the animating and involving figures in the landscape, giving it meaning and point.  The second theme, also in the song, is about how hard it is to separate those people from the ideas about their stories, issuing from their settings, in our own heads.

It seems to me that all of us who love gardening have minds infested with echoing images of people in gardens, derived from films, paintings and stories.  Like the singer in the song, we seem to be in a sort of soup of received ideas.  Speak for yourself, might be the deserved response to that observation.

So, I'll admit: I see family groups taking tea in heavy Edwardian clothes under cedar trees, shirt-sleeved men trimming hedges, cottagers hurrying down paths to privies, mothers cuddling babies under fluttering shadowed leaves against trellises.  I see old men pricking out seedlings with stubby fingers, young women drooping round swimming pools waiting for something to happen.  I see tense meetings at the far end of darkly hedged walkways, children kicking footballs into borders, water spraying over others screaming with joy.  I see crinkled faces clearing and smiling at flowers, I see people under rose arches, opening garden gates, sauntering across lawns to barbecues, beer in hand.  I see old people in flats watering pots of sooty ivy.  I see urns, steps, infinity pools, wheelbarrows, pergolas, whoops, the people have turned into the furniture.

What am I to do with all these images?  They fill my head, it's hard sometimes to see anything new-minted and fresh.  And there are so many.

So here's what I'm getting at, spurred by the song, which addresses this theme as it applies to people in desert landscapes.  Texas?  Mexico?  Deserts anyway, some Painted.

Gardens are about people, much more so perhaps than deserts.  But the people in them, even we ourselves, are trapped in stories we already seem to know, rolling through our heads like wrecking balls, shattering the possibilities of new and different stories.  I think I want something new and original, but like the singer in the song, I'm stuck with the images I already have - the mother earth figure, the honourable old chap, the literary gossamer romantic with the sun-hat and the trug, the free child making pets of wood lice, the garden parties, the solitary walks, the showing and loving of plants, the shapes and colours.

Despite all that, every now and then something new happens, not always welcome.  In my case, at the moment it's Carla, who has a fund of stories of her own, which she shouts at me, face quite close.  There's the one about the brothers who went into a restaurant with a chainsaw and cut all the legs off the chairs and tables.  Money owed, obviously.  Another about a woman who took three lovers and can no longer think straight.  Another woman, aged 46 , who found herself pregnant with triplets and now sits and wails, calling them the babies of her menopause.

Today we've had the story about how they're injecting strawberries with the blood of beetles, accounting for their wonderful modern red interiors.  We've had others about people dying of terrible illnesses, one after the other, we've had ones about robbers who gas people in order to take what they want at their leisure.  It's a wearing world, but it's not boring, or pretty.  She's not truly interested in any stories I might tell, but I'm quite keen to hear hers.  I feel myself to be like one of the backing singers in Brownsville Girl, their expressive responses a deep and endless joy to me - curious, disbelieving, astonished and encouraging - a Greek chorus of commentary.

I expect you're wondering about this Brownsville girl.  Who is she?  What does she have to do with anything?  For all I know, precisely nothing.  The chorus, which I enjoy, has always struck me as blaring and lyrically inane, sung with fervour by all involved but describing a person who is nothing but hair and teeth.  The singer, thinking about myths and stories, makes a distinction between an imagined picture of a person and someone real, like Ruby.  Ruby's no fool, she has her own myths, and she recognises those of others.  She's like the people round here who think I'm a romantic Englishwoman, messing  around with my beautiful view and my literary ideas.  They don't realise how conscious I am of my own mythologies, my own dearly held tales of truth and meaning.

So I'll set myself up here - this song, sung just like this, including the beginning which sounds like a person who's lost half his wits, perhaps leaving out the bit where the chorus gets muddled, but like this, just like this, it's wavering near the very best of Dylan - and more than that, it addresses myth, consciousness and creativity.  It seems to me to have an importance and a grandeur about it, but no shred of pomposity.  And as is usual with the best, it makes me laugh with sheer pleasure.

And now to find a way of winding all this up. The song has so many other wonders, breaking all bounds of speech within song, telling other jokes and stimulating complex reactions, lifting you to a high point.  Once again, I fear I do not do it justice, you can only listen for yourself.

It's true to say the cultural memes of gardens and deserts could be endless, if not eternal, and the whirling round inside them has no reason to stop.  But some of the people are real, some of the stories have purchase and you can't, being human, just rip them out and start again from nothing.  Especially when you find yourself in the middle of one, maybe a mythical beast for others.  Heavens knows what tales Carla tells of me.  I already know she considers me quite hilarious.  I'd be worried if I minded.


Thursday, 22 May 2014

Attacking, Cheerfully - When The Ship Comes In

All the months of May of our lives, they must count as some kind of bonus.  We should  perhaps be parsimonious with them, carefully calculating how best and where best to spend them, for  every place seems best in the vivid green of May. Our heads should barely touch the pillow.

May cannot be the best month in every part of the world - as a person who hasn't travelled much I can only generalise nervously.  There must be places where it's nothing special but I don't know where they are.  To me this month is almost too much; I have to turn away to recover myself  from all the glorious leafiness, risen like the bread of heaven.  I feel  I cannot take it all in, I'm worried I'm wasting it.  But I see that here in Northern Italy the scorching sun, when it appears, has already begun to darken and toughen the leaves that only a week ago were lime-coloured and transparent.

Now here's the song I have chosen to illustrate this theme of growth and ebullience.  It's When The Ship Comes In, from the album The Times They Are A'Changing and it is perhaps mainly a song of revenge and the settling of accounts.  It's Judgement Day. No god-like judge metes out the punishment however.  Those piratical wreckers who run about on the shore, led by the singer, are the ones who've lured the ships in to their destruction.

This song bursts and bubbles with the joy of revolution.  There's a tremendous sense of rush and movement, things are breaking and crashing open and apart, there's a setting free, a crossing of boundaries, a glorious mêlée.  The proud rocks and the laughing fish, they're not vengeful, they're just happy, slipping out of the path of destruction.  A carpet of gold is laid down.  The final moments, held in full view, are not just of violence and consternation, but of cheerful triumph and joyous comradeship.  You can see the faces on both sides. 

Now, I like this song for its inappropriate conjunction of  happy excitement and vicious revenge.   If you can do it cheerfully, why be angry.  But we have no idea who the enemy is, we could well find we're on the wrong side.  This song has no apparent ambiguity, but there's something odd about how sure we are that the attack is deserved.

And I really like reliably cheerful people, I tend to trust them, thinking that at least they're making an effort.  The more natural they seem, the more effort they're used to putting into it.  May ought to be one of our most cheerful months, not too hot yet, so much still to come, and there's still time to make a difference.

 I can usually find some sort of worm in the bud and here it is.  If your garden is not exquisitely beautiful in May, you've not just missed a trick, you've lost track of the whole game.  It ought to be so easy for nature seems to be on your side, trying her best.  I don't wish to divide gardeners into the just and the unjust, the right and the wrong, but there can be something harsh about the fact that suddenly the whole world seems a garden, horticulture seems to have escaped and run amok, lovelier than ever could have been planned or striven for.

In May, other people's gardens, even those that are barely attended to, burgeon with vast blossoming shrubs, overhanging fences and walls, out into the streets.  Huge viburnums, weigelas and lilacs, left to their own devices; they dwarf the choicer shrubs and perennials not yet come into their own, the mimsy colour co-ordinations, the whims and fancies of the careful gardener.  If it's this easy, why even bother?

Here in Mondovi' there are great mounds of roses and philadelphus in the gardens, elder, dogwood and robinia frothing the countryside.  In England its ceanothus, viburnums and crabapples in the gardens, hawthorn and cow parsley in heaving masses in the hedgerows.  And more elder, there's no end to it.

In both places the fabulous green could knock your eye out.  Here the meadows abound with blue salvia, pink scabious and dog-daisies.  There, it's buttercup, campion, clover and more dog-daisies.   You can't go wrong, everything looks so fresh.

May offers another kind of Judgement Day for the hopeful gardener. The important garden shows, the general floriferousnesss, the unusual level of gardening discussion, they all inspire a sense of aspiration and criticism.  There is a longing to be iconoclastic and effect a small revolution, but it generally doesn't work that well, though everyone gets quite elated.  Then you go home, where you find less exciting action is required and things subside back into proportion.  I've been to Chelsea many times in the past but have rather given it up now, feeling I've got the picture.  For a minute or two the one-up-manship lurking behind gardening turns it all into a bit of a battleground, internalised maybe, but slightly toxic.  I don't like to waste the energy it takes.

However I did go to Masino, the Italian equivalent of the French Courson.  There are no show gardens there yet and an endearing innocence.  All people want to do is sell the plants they've grown and brought.  You can still get a bit of a hit from the combinations of masses of plants in pots but so far I'm smugger than is good for me, none of it outfaces or diminishes my own efforts.  There's no need to get abrasively critical or quench the repetitive inner iconoclast, as at Chelsea. I find that dismal iconoclast is only masquerading anyway, it's not that I've got any brilliant new ideas myself, it's often just resistance and annoyance.

Not Chelsea

A lot of gardening is about being both energetic and relaxed, you can't really relax and put your back into it for very long if your teeth are gritted.  Far better to be shouting joyfully to each other across the ravaged landscape, hope and laughter in your eyes, schemes for beauty in your head.

Here's where I made my own cheerful attack, on my own ground. Last year, when I blithely instructed the digger-driver to move soil here, there and everywhere, placing it where it suited me.  Now I discover that I've been attacked back.  I've welcomed the Trojan horse in with open arms, throwing down the carpet, inviting it in to visit revenge on my dearest hopes.

The name of the invading troop is Equisetum arvense, or marestail.  I had originally spotted it on the far side of the garage and thought to myself, cunningly, Achilles like, how careful we must be not to spread it about.  And we have not shifted any soil from there.  I didn't think it was in the soil which we did move.  But now I see that it has got about.  It is coming up in two major areas, where it was not before, where the soil has been moved to. It's on the land beyond the pond and it's on the wrong side of the new road.  So let me lay it on the line, the rats are on the ship.  There is to be no happy conclusion to this, hand-to-hand combat can only make matters worse for me.  I had thought I was a joyous activist, changing the shape of the land, overturning stuff and breaking rules, now I see I'm not on the winning side.



And there is more soil-shifting to be done, we still have the levelling to do in front of the house.  I see none of the horrible weed in the pile outside my door, but I have no confidence, indeed, why should I?  My chickens are roosting, they squawk unkindly as they come home.

Now, is this a disaster?  I've lived with marestail before, on an allotment, where it seemed to  grow weakly, but in perpetuity. Here, it looks much stronger.  I think it's a disaster.  You can try glyphosate or salt, but they won't work.  Cultivation spreads it.  People say you can keep picking it out, though I don't quite know what they mean by that and anyway no one could pick this much out.  And then you're supposed to dessicate it, grind it up and then scatter it for the minerals it contains.  So I've been told, though it sounds like something people tell other people to do without ever really getting round to it themselves.  I strongly believe that if I could find another use for it, it would magically diminish.  You could scrub pans with it.  How many pans does a person need to scrub?  What I'm really afraid of is collecting  it up for some of these ideas and then finding I've spread it further.


In the area where I knew it lurked originally this weed seems to have quadrupled, more than quadrupled.  Was it the warm wet winter?  Was it my arrogance and ignorance?  See, that's gardening in May for you - ships as well as chickens coming in, a great mass of masts, sails and flying birds on the horizon.  Punishment or pardon, that's what you get.  It only looks all fresh and bright, you don't really get the chance to start anew.

Ok, time to regroup.  There's another chemical I could use but I don't even want to think about it.  Drought will help, and we're bound to get some of that.  Every cloud, as they say.  The marestail has not yet arrived in areas where I want to garden properly, not yet.  It's green, it's ancient, it's not the end of the world, nothing's the end of the world.  Only the end of the world, I suppose.

Oh, but the song's a great song about something like that and so cheerful.  There, I swap places again.  We're all on the right side, mowing down our enemies, with their silly sleepy faces.  Chains are busting, sands are shaking and morning is breaking, like an egg.  May really does seem to be the time to wake up and face the music. We might just as well be cheerful about it.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

My Own Pet Lamb - Soon After Midnight

I can barely speak for pride and happiness.  I have achieved what I wished for: a garden that fits the space, my needs, some of my desires and the limits of my budget.  It even incorporates some of the left over elements of the garden that was here before, also made by me.  By all these measures it is a success, but I keep my voice down, a little bit worried about hubris.  It is not art and it breaks no new ground, but I look at it with pleasure.  I see that I have made it, and I see that it is good.

Here's part of it it is from the bedroom window.

Here we're looking back to the house from one side.

Here's the garden as you enter along the side of the house.

Here it is from the other.

So, you've got the idea, and you're probably less impressed than I feel you should be.

You see you may be thinking, well I wouldn't have done it like that, I don't understand why the levels drop at both sides, when there's no reason for them to do so.  That  box bush is a wreck and I would have used proper stone, I would have laid it better, I would have made the edges straighter and finished off the pond neatly and well.  Something odd is happening with the whole orientation and why on earth did she make that odd cross shape at the end of the right hand brick path, which is anyway slightly too wide.  As for the pointing on those steps - for goodness sake surely a little decent pointing is not beyond her.

The awful thing is, I can answer every one of  your criticisms and I have good, no, excellent reasons for the absolute necessity of each element being exactly as it is.  Apart from the pointing, which awaits amendment, most can be summed up  as the  inexorable constraints of physics and geometry.  Others as the limits of will, time, energy and creativity.  Those seem just as inexorable to me, for we all mostly do our best, we can only do our best, and I'm sorry to admit, that's what I did.

Never mind, there we are, we're not in a competition. For the time being I think I'll just go back to being pleased with it: that gives me the chance to show you a few more of the positive features that we can only hope will develop with time.

For a start, I've gone for a very gentle mix of formality and informality.  I wanted a sense of order, but no hint of pernicketiness.  So there are geometric shapes, but they're asymmetrical and all the edges are slightly wobbly and imperfect.  You might think I'm making a virtue out of an insufficiency, and granted, you have me bang to rights.

I have indulged in soft lines of planting across the garden rather than mirrored plantings and sharp topiary. We have a line of variegated Osmanthus heterophyllus on one side of the longest brick path, a line of that soft, short hair-like grass Hakonechloa macra just at the top of the badly pointed steps, a line of three tall, thin, small-leaved hollies at the back and a line of liriope spicata to the left of the big acanthus, left over from the last garden.  Finally there's a line of three dwarf sarcococca at the back right, behind the cross shaped paving, for which I find I have less of a coherent explanation than I thought.

This business of planting in lines - it's not supposed to hit you in the eye, it's just a gentle repetition of the horizontal, so good at calming things down.  I like a lot of different plants, but I don't want it to be too much of a muddle.  The lines are different lengths and unevenly placed, to furnish a sort of unemphatic balance.

I wanted a garden that could look after itself to some degree.  This garden will need grooming, but that is both relaxing and rewarding.  I shall like it - trimming, fiddling, encouraging, and removing what offends my magisterial whims.

There'll be a lot of low evergreens - I'm using geraniums, Fragaria Chaval, London Pride, or Saxifraga primuloides and Teucrium chamaedrys, also known as germander, a short dark shrubby perennial.  It looks like a big, scentless thyme and flowers late and pink.  Its nature is quiet and retiring.  People have attempted to use it as a box substitute in knot gardens.  No, not a good idea, it's far too floppy and unsure of itself.  Rosemary Verey gave me a very sharp look when I pointed that out to her, about 30 years ago.  We were like living embodiments of the plants in question.  And I like to drop a name, let me drop a name, though she would not have known me from Adam.

So I will be using that Teucrium, and have scattered invisible little cuttings about, along with Baccharis halmifolia.

That's a very similar plant but with smaller, brighter leaves and puffs of tiny white flowers.  It makes a much taller bush though, and I don't want too much height so I've kept it close to the fence.  Pruning enough, and at the right time is going to be the trick with these two.  I shall be delighted if I can get them to flower and stay smallish.  Both will grow from old wood, so it should be possible to use them as I want.

There was another requirement of course, to use up some things I had no other home for.  I had two deciduous azaleas: fortunately they are graceful shrubs and may contribute a lively, graceful and slightly see-through presence even in full leaf.  I don't want big shrubs standing about like fridges so shall be busy with the secateurs.  In winter they're nearly invisible, having very thin twigs.

Some things, like the Acanthus Rue Ledan, (that big dark heap near the tree), a large shiny leaved fennel, Selinum tenuifolium (an elegant late umbellifer), the two main trees, a big Fruhlingsgold rose and Buddleia Dartmoor have been gardened round.  That is to say, they have stayed where they were, the garden has politely not requested them to move, hoovering under their feet.  They've got themselves nicely settled, I don't want a lot of resentful invalids on my hands and I value their present size or shape.

Once I get going like his I can go on for ever, explaining and defending.  I want beautiful, mainly non-tropical leaves, easy plants, sparse and quiet flowerings.  Provision for birds and bees, complete ground cover and a cheerful, scented winter array, for that's when we will mostly be here to use the garden.

The garden is small, twelve metres wide by eight deep, with a big notch cut out.   It has a rickety bench, which I will replace when I can afford to, on the original old path, which now looks like what we will call the shady terrace or patio.

The garden has new brick paths to draw the eye and pull you in amongst the plants and a main terrace with a pond running all along the back of the house.  Under that are some simple drainage arrangements of stones and supports for the paving, which is not concreted in.
I did not want all the water from the roof running away into the mains - I  believe we're now calling this concept a "rain garden" but it seems like age-old common sense to me.  It doesn't just mean using water butts.  It means keeping the run-off that won't fit in the water butts within the garden somewhere, not so that it creates a quagmire but so that it is slowly absorbed.  Some permeable space near the house is essential and we have plenty of that.   I would have liked to have piped surplus water into the pond but was up against inexorable constraints: gravity and the free passage of people across the paving.

Here's my theory of the song, Soon After Midnight from the album Tempest.  It's all about creativity within constraints, it's about limitations managed with grace and wit, it's about what I and anyone who makes a garden has to do - applying desire to restriction and necessity.

Songwriting is always about this on some level, and often the glory of a song lies in the ability to transcend the restrictions of rhyme and melody, so that they appear as no restriction at all.  This song does something different, it celebrates the very act of the search to fit the words with the music, trying them out, turning them over and around, never leaving the constraints until the end, when it lets it all go.  The" you" of the last phrase has no shape or form, it's just to finish it in the right place, everything where it should be, a nice feeling, a bit of turning outwards.

One of the best things about the human voice is the way it can pull you into another persons world, so that you see through their eyes, because you feel the thrum in your own chest and comprehend the stratagems of vocalisation.

In this song, not only that, you also get a glance inside the late-night songwriter's head or somewhere that feels like it. Nothing much to say but, making do with what he has.  So we get a snap of annoyance with something undefined but visceral, then a visual memory of a woman  You can almost see her walking along, looking back.

He's delighted to have another go at rhyming harlot with scarlet and adding in Charlotte and he has a little ultimate fantasy on the side - a date with a fairy queen.  We'd all like one of those.

But the best bit for me, the bit that always makes me smile, is when he sings, "When I met you, I didn't think you'd do."  What a world of self-knowledge in that slightly ruthless sound, that absolutely demotic swing to the voice.  And it brings me back to the process of creation, the feeling around, trying to get it right, working out what will do, putting up with it, being thrilled with it, changing it round till it fits.

And the song is so pretty, so delightfully listenable with a beautiful swelling melody.  I don't care if he's borrowed some of it: new ideas are unconscionably rare and this is a lovely piece of neat knitting, where everything fits so sweetly, even a bit of rage and horror.  Dylan's wonderful, endless voice, his delicious phrasing and his wit will always have me on his side.  The fun of harnessing chaos to form and the joy of hunting for harmony.  The pleasure of preventing leakage and confusion.  The deep satisfaction of putting what there is in its proper place and of keeping it there.  It all helps to hold the sky up, to keep the world where it ought to be.


Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Pursuing The Pursuit - I Want You

There are a few things in life where you can almost guarantee that getting what you're pursuing, what you yearn for, will result, not in disappointment, not in satisfaction, but in the simple ending of the pleasures of desire.
Perfume, in the natural world, not in a bottle, about which I am not qualified to speak, is often one of those. A good scent, drifting in the air, is a fugitive pleasure, creating the longing for more of itself.  Were you to stop wanting more the delight would fall to the floor, like a shot bird.

It's the violet, viola odorata, which carries the dilemma one ironic step further, eliminating the chemical receptors in the nose as its scent is inhaled.  It leaves you longing, powerless even to sense what you're longing for.  If it were not so sweet it would be bitter.

          "When violet nosegays were at the height of fashion around the turn of the century
           (the 19th), young ladies were carefully coached on violet-smelling techniques.
           Not only was a long, deep inhalation crude and vulgar, it also fatigued a young
           lady's scent receptors more rapidly than a series of short, dainty sniffs.  At the
           same time, the medical profession worried that the stimulation from a violet nosegay
           might affect one's health."

So speaks Tovah Martin from her 1976 book about fragrant plants for indoor gardens - The Essence Of Paradise.  The whole book could be bad for your health.  It fills you with desire for conservatories, green-houses and porches swooning with scent.  I recommend it, for intelligent writing, comprehensiveness and detailed hints and tips on growing techniques.  She praises citrus plants for unfailingly pleasing everyone with their scents, but points out that they are very difficult to keep in good health for long periods inside.  I like books that don't pretend everything is easy.

Back to those violets.  I tried the sniffing instructions with an ordinary wild outdoor violet,.  They grow and flower every year, down our stony shared urban track in England.  They're hard up against a wall, regularly visited by dogs and fight against vinca and scrubby grasses.

You can hardly see them in this picture, though there are dozens of them, flowering their little hearts out, unlike their seedlings, found in every garden, which don't seem to bother, leafy and happy to increase with stranger methods of hidden reproduction.

It must be the sun, the stoniness, and the lack of all luxury which causes these particular violets to flower so.  I sniff and sniff, daintily and youthfully, never quite getting enough, never quite getting none.  I try again a few minutes later - nothing at all.  My desire is anaesthetised by repetition, not quenched by achievement.  For the moment it's gone, that enhanced perception, that delicious state.

As children we enjoyed the occasional packet of Parma Violets.  They were very small and tasted very strong.  More than three or four would sicken you rather than wear out your receptors.  I hunted them down in a sweetshop the other day and they have blown up to a remarkable, charmless size.  Same taste though.   An elusive Elysian allure annihilated in sugar.

One of the excellent things about garden fragrances is that there is no real hierarchy of conossieurship.  Not one that can be pinned down anyway.  Some people really can't smell things that seem strong to others, some people delight in things that others find pretty vile.

I could have sworn that everyone would love sarcococca, a most reliable, deliciously-scented little evergreen that pours its essence across the garden just about now.  But not so, I planted it for someone who could not bear what she perceived as a catty scent, and there's no point in arguing about that.  Myself, I love to work in a garden full of the sarcococca's sweetness, like another presence, not at all feline, wafting round me.

On the other hand, I have found it impossible to linger long in too foxy a garden.  I don't mind an exciting gust, such as fritillaries provide, but years ago Margery Fish's old garden at East Lambrook Manor was smothered in phuopsis stylosa, a harmless, sweetly wild looking pink flower.  The stench was astonishing, like a pack of wolves on heat.  But some people seemed not to notice.

Pretty though it is, I have no plans to grow the clary sage, salvia sclarea, again.  I could not get its stale and sweaty aroma out of my nasal passages.  And an elderly, rather patrician lady of my acquaintance, who I thought would love them, reacted with violence and disgust to what she saw as the reek of scented geranium leaves when I attempted to entertain her with a visit to the vast greenhouse of a local stately home.

Hunting for an interesting experience, I tried many different kinds on her, as her face grew ever more appalled.  I think she thought I might be genuinely crazy, maddened by those admittedly strong scents, each with their pungent geranium version of something else - lemon, nutmeg, rose, cloves, mint.  Her main desire was to get right away, back to the Cuir De Russie.

To be honest, the inedible scented leaves I love most are few and clean-smelling, not mixed or musty.   Prostanthera cuneata, a small curly-leaved, grey and white flowered antipodean  is one.  Then there's southernwood, Artemisia abrotanum, grey-leaved and feathery, old-fashioned and humble.  Both have cheering medicinal healthy smells - you could rub them on your chest and feel better and nicer.  Mostly, I like them round my legs as I garden; ready for release as I pass.

I have yet to be thrilled by the scent of chimonanthus fragrans, the wintersweet.  In many ways that lets me off the hook - it's a shockingly dreary-looking shrub in midsummer, like a regular lilac.  Shapeless too though I'm sure it could be managed better.  Here it is in Milan, rather high up, but I found others I thrust my face into, tasting only a sour little nothing.


My most delightfully scented garden moments, when I've been unable to think of anything else, have been from those fragrances that rise in the air, almost breathed out, like waves that break over you.  And they've often come from evergreen shrubs, my favourites for so many reasons.  Osmanthus, Pittosporum tobira, Daphnes and Eleagnus are obvious.  But the other pittosporums too, so exquisite a perfume exhales from their tiny black flowers in late summer -  you just have to have the right moisture in the air, at the right time of day.  Enough stillness, the perfect temperature, a certain amount of enclosure: fragrance drifting like a gift, like a vagary.  You can aim for it, but you can never be sure. And that makes for intermittent reinforcement, the most binding stimulus to desire.

So, to the song.  I Want You, from the album Blonde on Blonde.  A series of verses detailing some off-kilter transactions, personalities and situations - nothing making a lot of sense.  The words and music are complicated and speedy, dancing around in the background.   And then in comes the urgent, repeated refrain, cutting across with a clear and compelling voice, expressing a kind of tasteful lust, again and again, with the same intonation, as though slightly possessed or brainless and lost to reason.

Well, we all know the sensation, the sweetness and excitement of desire, which makes everything else fade away. The song celebrates the feeling, spinning it out and giving it weight, force and steadiness against the distracting chit-chat in the background.

But firmness and solidity are not attributes of desire.  Like hunger or thirst, it's a changeable feeling you move through, hopefully to some sort of resolution.  It's a state of transition, you cannot pin it down and make it stick.  That would be a kind of ultimate fantasy, if not a kind of hell.

There is a version of the song on the At Budokan album where the yearning refrain is like  an emotional howling at the moon.  The song is slower.  It feels less throw-away and more convincing.  But I rather like the lighter focus on desire simply for its own sake in the Blonde on Blonde version and it suits my purposes, for it is the lustful, brain-free equivalent of the unassuageable longing inspired by some garden fragrances, floating around, floating away.

Here are some of my own favourite scent charms which held back the chaos in my old UK garden.  All hardy here, they have seen me through the seasons of many years, coming round and round again,  always welcome, ever retreating.  Although I have no sentimentality about old gardens I have made, loved and lost these would be the perfumed elements I would yearn for, if such yearning seemed to have any point, or end.

I'll start with a cooking apple,  I believe it to be Arthur Turner, famed for the size and beauty of its flowers.  It smells of washed morning baby.

And here we have carnation-scented snowballs in April.  It's viburnum burkwoodii, semi-evergreen, which is a messy category, but a tidy dark host for a viticella clematis later if that's the sort of  combination you like to undertake.  Anyway it's one of those wall leaning shrubs that mainly self-supports, meaning you shouldn't need to do any climbing and tying in yourself.

And here below are a couple of grandiflora magnolias.  I would always have a few in the house throughout August and into September, taken from a pair of trees that outgrew their spaces and were eventually reduced to one.   I would tell people the flowers smelt like lemons in a church, which they really do; cold, austere but perfectly ripe Sicilian lemons.  See how unsentimental I am.

I would never plant this tree again, for the endless housework involved in clearing up its crackly eternal leaves.  Magnolia watsonii is a much better bet and can fill a whole walled garden with the scent from one flower.  But it's not a lemon in a church.

Magnolia grandiflora Gallissoniere

I find it hard to believe I would ever have enough of some scents.  For example, daphne bholua Jacqueline Postill,  daphne odora aurea-variegata even more so and daphne bholua alba for flowering from January, right on till March. 
Then there are zaluzianskya capensis, an exquisitely scented annual, pulsating with rhythmic bursts of perfume in the evening.  Exacum affine, artless, delicious, a house-plant really; acidenthera murieliae; white freesias, smelling of black pepper; azara microphylla, smelling of white chocolate; mahonia japonica, smelling of lily-of -the-valley; some roses obviously; sweet peas certainly; eleagnus multiflora freely exhaling its essence - these are the scents I would possess if I could find a way to do so. 
And I don't even know what possess means in that sentence.  Some sort of imbibing, becoming one with, more than smelling, more like becoming part of.  Scents that fire me with some sort of  unanswerable desire despite their sweetly innocent floweriness.  I want them.  So bad.


Monday, 6 January 2014

Trepidation - It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

So the year tips, over into the next one.  We're in transition, out of the winter tinsel, forging through the wasting months, then beyond, into the beyond.  Shedding the past, lurching forward.  I can hear a distant rattle.  Something's coming down the track.

Despite the casting off of the old, I feel a bit badly about my last post, which hectored about tidying up.  Here is my garden in England, where I have been doing some of that, as well as laying bricks and assisting with the laying of the recycled Council slabs.

In October last year, from one side

Now, from the other

I show this in a spirit of humility, this garden is still only a garden in prospect.  Despite nearly a year having passed since I started thinking about the necessary changes , a great deal remains to be done.  In any case, it's nothing more than an assemblage of the ends of old building materials gathered up from other gardens over a period of some years.  The bricks are overbaked ones, from an old local kiln.  They're uneven and twisted, without the soft glow of proper old bricks.

Add to them a motley collection of different sizes and colours of concrete slabs, a number of blue engineering bricks left over from elsewhere, some ends of sleepers which I collected up a few years ago to save them from the dump, and you see that this garden is neither slick nor fine.  Unpretentious, that's what I wanted.  How fortunate.

We have created a pond and I am pleased to report that the liner will never show, because we have lined it internally with these unattractive bits and pieces.  The sleeper ends are to prevent small children and old people hurtling directly into it. as they exit the patio doors.

The song of the day is It's All Over Now, Baby Blue.  Anyone who knows Dylan will know that it certainly is all over, there is nothing new to be said about this song.  I would not dream of trying, not in my current, diffident, mode.

But it captures where we are, caught here on the cusp.  For a week or two the past year rears up for the final blast, a ghost of itself, inexorably fading.  But the new year is not fully here yet, another wraith rambling towards us, through the mist.  The days are still so short, the light still so far away.

There are strange warm storms, and water everywhere, all over Britain.  What future we can see looks out of joint.  Like all of us though, I push the worries away, clear my forehead and lift my eyes to the next hill.  Looking forward, with trepidation.

I have a serious anxiety, related to a loved one's health, which I must carry carefully through the next months.  I have global climate worries too, shared with most sensible people.  There's little to be idiotically cheerful about and this song perfectly captures the tone, for it is deeply uneasy as it pushes on to the unknown, knowing the past is gone.

Here's a little plant to lighten the gloom, hunkered down against the soil.  I have only really learnt to enjoy these in the last few years - before that, I only bothered with cyclamen hederifolium, the autumn flowering species with more rhombus shaped leaves.  Now I see that this other kind have more to offer: they are cyclamen coum, the round leaved cyclamen that begins flowering in late December and carries on till nearly the end of March.  I have the impression that their flowering fades and strengthens, according to the harshness of the cold weather.  That's what we need, plants with flexibility. 

Last year I planted these in a large round blue pot for someone else, along with blue anemone blanda.  They were cheerful and popular, cleanly bright spots of colour for weeks, smart and harmonious with their interestingly varied leaves, neat, graceful, and just wild enough. 

The autumn-flowering cyclamen, hederifolium is still full of leaf as I write, but its flowers pass nearly unnoticed in a busy garden.  You would need masses of them to show up, in clear woodland areas under trees, where early bulbs have bloomed and died away, in the droughty shade of summer.

Here in our British gardens, autumns now seem to go on for ever.  Herbaceous plants and deciduous shrubs don't know when to call it a day. These cyclamen, also known as ivy-leaved, are squeezed out, flowering unnoticed under everything else  They long for more light and space just when there is no chance of that.

I plan to try cyclamen hederifolium under trees in my Italian garden.  Remembering however that they may serve as a treat for the boars - presumably the name "sow-bread", under which they also labour, means something.  Their huge tubers would make a nice solid sandwich for a porker.

Winter-flowering cyclamen coum are the ones I will go for here in the UK from now on,  they more than satisfy me in these dark days.  They'll be my emblem of a transition that means nothing and everything, the low point, the turning of the year.   Those exquisitely formed upside down petals are where everything starts anew, even before the snowdrops.

I remember seeing  a woodland near Rome completely carpeted with another cyclamen many years ago.  I never saw anything like it, before or since, the scent was astounding, the flowers seemed so rare and precious, elegantly expensive but just everywhere.  I think that was probably repandum, flowering in April or May and I imagine a little tenderer than coum.  If I can find them, I'll try them too.  Just the thought perks me up.

The version I choose of the song is found on the Bootleg Series vol 4 and is performed live.  The singer's voice is terrifyingly fragile, wrung out and strung out, but precise as a stiletto.  He captures an intense uneasiness about a necessary ending and a forced beginning, but he's inexorable.  His cast of looming, havering characters drift in and out, the sky folds, the carpet moves and we are in the grip of motion sickness, as if the changes we are facing make us nauseous with their stomach-turning abruptness. 

Everything collides but you cannot tell if the protagonist is the victim or the perpetrator of the flux of change.  That's what it can feel like when something inside you changes, affecting all those around you.  The switch-back you ride is the one you inflict, but you cannot choose to get off, it's beyond your control.   I don't get those feelings very often any more, they seem to me the property of youth rather than timorous age.  Nonetheless I recognise them and am grateful not to be at their mercy.  That just leaves the stuff that can happen to you, when you're not looking for it, when, on the whole, you'd prefer the world to continue turning on its axis.

In this song I hear conflicted emotions, ones that echo my own sense of the year turning and the future looming.  I hear the future already regretted and a simultaneous cleaving to and fleeing from the present.

Examine with me once more the little cyclamen, the match that is struck for the New Year, and let's take heart.  Back to the tidying up, the planting, the sticking together of hard materials to create comfort and structure.  What else is there to do?  I'll have glinting evergreens in winter, early flowers and verdant upholstery.  It's not over yet.