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.


  1. This is the first time I have read anyone talking about what I do. Last year when I didn't do it when we were all caught in the maelstrom of my mother's sudden death was the beginning of the garden coming to bits. If you garden with as much weed and wildness and chaos as we have here. cutting back is the one thing that makes the place look gardened, however lightly. If you don't the flop and decay take over. I like cutting back too. It makes me look at things. It isn't physically hard work although it is slow. Weeding,or failing to weed, makes me want to bang my head against a wall. There will always be more bindweed and bramble and giant hogweed than I can ever control. Planting things I like and helping them shine by cutting back when they go over and giving something else centre stage feels to me like just enough intervention.

  2. Reading this again makes me want to write a whole blog of my own, cheerily nicking your subject! There is so much to say about this. I agree wholeheartedly that gardening orthodoxy now says we must leave things. I really really don't thing that leaving things works. Perhaps I just have such a messy garden it can't take any more mess.

  3. Elizabeth, thank you for commenting. And agreeing with me of course! One of the reasons I wanted to write this is that I worry about people new to gardening who don't get the information they need about this crucial skill -in fact they get the reverse. Endless talk about propagation and bumping up fertility . Then they sanctimony about "nature" to the general timorousness about cutting plants in any way. And the garden can become a rather frightening mess ,as you say. I quite agree that cutting back is enjoyable and many of my clients appreciate the results of that aspect of my work most, which makes us all happy. It's very hard to find someone who will come in and do proper cutting back, over the long term - even if RHS trained.

    Anyway, do, do write about it on your blog. You'll do it so well and so clearly and it can only help. I look forward to it. My very best to you

  4. I meant "they add sanctimony about nature"

  5. A complex subject, you are right. But there's also cutting back as the season progresses and you manage the display to best advantage of all, and there's cutting back because it's all gone over and manky. Though of course, something will still be looking good with its seedheads or whatever.

    Still, at this point - autumn - there is a joy in cutting it all down and seeing the patterns of the garden emerge again, and such mulch is quietly colourful. Best not to have a photographer in the house who will be waiting for the elusive hoar frost to make it all look good uncut and who won't like a chop.

    So some bits get an autumn chop, some a spring chop...we have to look and learn, and weigh things up?? And experiment. But I hate that shall I? shan't I ? feeling...!

    Xxxxx Anne

  6. Hi Anne, thank you so much for commenting, I did find myself getting into a muddle between the those two types of cutting back but in practice I make very little differentiation simply carrying on through out the autumn, bit by bit on the basis that I'm making the garden look better now,and at its best for the next 2 or 3 weeks and that might include a bit of autumn colour. You have larger, more extensively managed areas I suspect and quite right too, different garden do need different treatments. It's all about looking and learning and not being hide-bound as you say.
    Photographers are the very devil with their unreasonable desire for those fantasy effects - so rare these days. I'm rather glad I'm my own very inadequate one!

  7. Nothing like a little light trimming on a sunny afternoon! and you're right , it makes a real difference.There are still bees and butterflies,strange fungi, even early pale blue Iris, not normally seen until February, bulbs are thro' and primroses, a strange year!

    1. Hi Jenny, thanks so much for commenting. Yes a weird year, we expect more of those and much worse I suppose. Not to be too gloomy, will catch up in the next few weeks.