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.



  1. Thanks Jane. Nice to hear from you again. Great description, of the garden and of your feelings about it. Many echoes for me. I planted and developed a small garden much like yours in shape, layout and even planting, though mine had mature brick walls on three sides and a greater slope, towards the house, to contend with. It is a great shape to map plants into, and I took much delight in making it reflect a combination of the heritage of the location, industrial north England, beds edged with railway sleepers, York paving stones reclaimed from underneath ashphalt yard covering, and my plant predelictions and fancies, a lovely acer and walls covered with honeysuckles and roses. There were echoes from the song you chose too. The Dylan lines about not thinking it would 'do' to begin with....I had left a much larger, apparently more promising, garden behind after a relationship split and was dispirited........but then finding that I could make it right if I just 'saw' it differently and opened myself to its possibilities. Thought hard, worked hard and made something beautiful and right for it's space. Which is what I see Dylan doing all the time. And now.......well now I have to do it all over again, another move, and another garden! Giving up the garden as my companion to make way for a new relationship. This time the space is even smaller, with no lovely brick walls, and this time having to work with another gardener/partner who has preferences I don't always share! Many plants have come with me, and are great reminders, thriving in their new home. It is lovely to have a companion, exposure to new ideas on planting and garden purpose, but certainly a learning experience in tolerance and compromise! Is there a Dylan song for that I wonder? I will think about it. Hope the summer will give all us gardeners good times and quiet satisfactions. Thanks again , Jane.

  2. Hi Jennyg, that was so interesting to hear about - you are right, it's all about the the fit and the accommodation to or for the situation and the people. That to me is the real meaning of the domestic garden, it's what makes it complex and significant and yet without hierarchy. Thinking and attention, that's what we like to see.

    I wish you very well with your new garden and new life. I have never had to face the compromising and the being tolerant - I've always had partners who were not prepared to fight me for their share of the garden. Sometimes I lose a couple of little battles in order to win the war though.

    Thank you for commenting - it's much appreciated. You seem to really get the way my mind works!


  3. We think it looks fab! Do you want fish? we have some spare. Can't wait to see it in the flesh. Hard landscaping has impressed Dave no end! JennyX

    1. Hi Jenny, well thank you very much, most flattered by compliments on hard landscaping. Yes to fish, I'll be in touch.

  4. I like it very much and I like even more your love of it and explanation and defence of it all. I have a very similar feeling when people walk with me around my garden. I can see that it often disappoints. Much of it is hardly a garden at all but more a field with a slope and some plants and a monstrously lovely view. I can feel them thinking I need to split it up and shut it down into compartments and bloody "rooms". But I have done what I have done with thought and intention. I know it is not all right and that there is more to be done but I want to forestall any criticism by explaining why this is like it is and that is to stay and that is a work in progress. Am I just being defensive? Of course I am but it is also entirely true to say that there are reasons for things being as they are, and reasons which make sense to me.
    We have an awful lot of grass though, our garden being essentially an old field. I do rather envy you the absence of grass.

  5. Hello Elizabeth, thank you for commenting and I quite agree with you about the bloody rooms when you have a lovely view. Much harder to make your mark there, in a way which others will be able to read anyway. I contend with that in Italy and I know that will be the really serious challenge. But I have enjoyed making this little one and the lack of grass is a great relief!