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.


  1. Yes about May. I watch my ailing father (he has MND which I don't talk about much on my own blog as my family read it) and wonder if he has another May. I know he wonders too as he asks me to wheel him out to sit in the sun. I watch my ninety five year old father in law. Has he another May? Maybe. He has generally seemed cheerily unaware of his own mortality. How many more do I have? Ten? Twenty? It is my favourite time of the year in a way which has always almost hurt.
    Marestail now. I had some in an allotment a lifetime ago. Dreadful, insidious, unconquerable stuff.. Slash and burn I say.
    Sorry, that's a pretty grim response, having just read it back. I am actually one of your determinedly cheery types in the flesh.

  2. And I knew you were! It shines through. Thanks for your comment and I am truly sorry about your father, that's a really hard thing to have. Your father in law reminds me of my own, smiling on the edge of the abyss. Wonderful.

  3. Sorry to hear about the mares tail Jane. It was one of the things that softened the blow when we left West Cliff Drive... Leaving it behind.
    Hope you manage to get on top of it!

  4. Thanks Anni, I think I need dinosaurs to come and eat it.

  5. Hi Jane - I too always find myself thinking 'how many more springs?' and imagine that knowing one to be your last would be a kind of unbearable, though clearly people do find ways to bear these things. And also I remember that Christopher Lloyd said that a garden can't compete with the countryside in May - and it is a challenge.

    But already the darker green has happened and you have Mare's Tail. That's grim!

  6. Anne, you are so kind to comment and I wanted so much to respond to your concerns about garden criticism on Thinkingardens but never got round to it at the right time. So I am feeling sorry about that.

    I had forgotten Christopher Lloyd said that, how right he was. I wonder what he had to say about marestail.

  7. May be you can use your Mare's tail as a kind of ground cover, check out the bog at Federal Twist, His climate shouldn't be so very different to yours either.

    1. What a fascinating idea! I shall be sure to do that.