Garden thoughts…

Sometimes I think I ought to stop referring to myself as a gardener. So much of the work I’ve occupied myself with has made planting a mere afterthought recently – a luxury to be indulged in when the real work’s done, and I find myself sitting with seed packets in hand, not quite remembering what to do.

But here I have the little greenhouse shelves, all ready and waiting for a much more orderly way of going about things. There’s no more heavy lifting to do. No more vast complexes of roots to get stuck into. I feel strangely light and a little disoriented – where are my tools? my weights and measures, by which I’ve eeked out the days? This is all so light and frivolous…

 

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Purple Foxglove Digitalis, Corn Snapdragon from Botanical prints by H. Isabel Adams 1907

 

I wanted to write about my favourite plants. Those childhood playmates; the foxgloves wavering in the afternoon sun, the roses that tore open my thigh when I was just young enough for it to mean something ritual, magical, sacred. I wanted to write about the herbs glimpsed in a grubby book, nicotine-stained by my grandfather’s armchair, and his beautiful metered handwriting on blue paper, spelling out words that meant nothing more to me at the time than any foreign language, except they were big, meaty words – the opposite of the familiar (primrose, petunia, allyssum – those feminine words with all that bite behind them). Slipped between the pages of his Egyptology books, I thought they must have been related. Chrysanthemums – Asteraceae – white pom-poms stuffed into the mouths of mummified God-corpses. Jars of amber, floating flower-heads, twisting roots, Darwinian specimens of something other than ordinary life.

From mysterious words, to drawn blood on the pathway – to a book chanced upon in a teacher’s office (who had an old wash-pot planted with woodland flowers and a Culpepper’s Herbal set out for reference or atmosphere) – an old lady teaching us our native tongue, catching a bee in her soft, padded palm to let it out of the window without the least concern… ‘he knows exactly what I’m doing’ .

 

Ao Matsuda

Ao Matsuda, tattoo artist

 

Now I keep planting purple things – as if the bees aren’t so much reading my mind as forcefully putting things into it. Verbena, scabeous, foxgloves and dianthus – open-hearted flowers that waft perfume and line up landing strips of leopard print salutations and welcomes. The bees who follow me around, sometimes resting on my bare brown shoulders with their little trousers laden with yellow swag.

A wild swarm descended one afternoon, and I’m ashamed of myself for running, but the noise was alarming, and I’ve never met one before, and I have a guilty conscience – the bees know everything, after all.

I wanted to write about particular plants – but there’s no such thing – no such thing as isolation in nature. Everything tumbles in, everything hangs on to the thing before and the thing coming after. We’re all so interwoven, if you pull one thread we all unravel.

They are all my favourite things in the garden.

Sometimes you just have to remember what a gardener really is.

Autumn: A Retrospective

 

Time scampers by us light-footed, while we are busy doing work. It was only this morning as I opened my curtains to an inexplicable dusting of white snow that I realised: Autumn has come headlong through its part, and I’ve not made comment on it here.

I haven’t missed a minute of it in the real world – I watch the leaves fastidiously, I rummage about for fungi, I even swift-finger my way through the seasonal crafts and chores, watching the skies for our departing friends, but it all swoops so quickly towards the Mid-Winter chaos, and I forget, sometimes, to take a moment.

So, here is one bright quilt of Autumn: a retrospective of the season in which I’m always happily too busy to whistle! I’ve planted trees, I’ve hand-dug landscaping mistakes of the past, I’ve repaired windows and painted walls – and I’m still pulling up that infernal bush thicket, which I thought would be a nice job to get my teeth into two years ago…

I’ve sown seeds and planted bulbs, but for now, colour.

 

All photos by The Compulsive Gardener

Fall Song by Mary Oliver

Another year gone, leaving everywhere
its rich spiced residues: vines, leaves,

the uneaten fruits crumbling damply
in the shadows, unmattering back

from the particular island
of this summer, this NOW, that now is nowhere

except underfoot, mouldering
in that black subterranean castle

of unobservable mysteries – roots and sealed seeds
and the wanderings of water. This

I try to remember when time’s measure
painfully chafes, for instance when autumn

flares out at the last, boisterous and like us longing
to stay – how everything lives, shifting

from one bright vision to another, forever
in these momentary pastures.

Free Gold

 

With mulching playing such an important role in the health of the clay-based garden this summer, naturally thoughts go to the issue of mulching. I had time pressures this year and was forced to do two things I’m not fond of doing in the garden: spending money, and taking whatever was cheapest at the time.

I didn’t like it because I didn’t do due diligence about where the mulch comes from. Of course I checked for the sustainable tick etc, but to me that’s not enough of a guarantee, because my idea of sustainable and other peoples is vastly different.

I’m lucky enough to live close by ancient woodland. On the one hand, you don’t want to take more than woodland can spare – even collecting leaves from the ground needs to be done with caution, because that gentle coating on the ground is essential to the survival of growing things. But in late Summer, before the Autumn fall starts in earnest, I’ll skim a little litter for my garden, and that little goes a long, long way.

 

mulched roseFree leaf litter, to ward off the late summer weeds – an experiment in mulching for roses

 

I’ll also keep the freefall from the garden, for a neat winter covering should the winter be a hard one. Waste-not-want-not, as my kin have always said.

It bears thinking about when selecting trees for a garden: evergreen is wonderful for screening and reliability and much-needed winter colour, but the deciduous trees should always be our friends. Without their seasonal changes, what would this time of year really be? Without the stark bare branches in Winter, would we still delve inwards so deeply, seeking inspiration of a less material kind? I like to think huddling around fires has done us all the world of good at some point or another.

 

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Photo by Valmir Dzivielevski Junior

 

I already planted the first Spring bulbs back in early September, and the process goes on, like all Autumn rituals: a great gathering and planting plans for next year’s ease. Something buried for our emergence from the cold.

Autumn is my favourite time of year – coloured daubs of leaves, early mists, a wholesome chill in the air, and Halloween festivities. I wake up about this time of year – like the last five months have been a sluggish dream I can’t quite remember, and don’t much care about.

There are plans afoot now. The perfect meeting point between brash colour and natural darkness. Ritual fires and tender reflections – a harvesting of sleeping plans.

It’s all so very abundant, and that’s exactly what we want. Abundance is the perfect antidote to madness, sadness, stresses and grief.

 

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vertical red and yellow abstract painting
Osnat Tzadok

Long Term Plans…

It’s still all about trees here. Last week the oaks, this week, the orchard.

Orchards are funny things. I’m not sure how they can be mysterious and wholesome at the same time: homely, yet uncanny, but they are. Perhaps it’s their ancientness that whispers in even the jolliest of hollows, or perhaps it is the fruit with a star at its heart.

 

Rushed apple star illustration with added coffee spillage :/

I am cultivating a mixed orchard at the moment, eschewing the problems of which local apple variety to partner up with, in favour of tidying a more pressing problem with saplings in the lawn: the littered offspring of the old damson tree. It’s a project I’ve been working on for a couple of years – as all tree projects are – it leads me to thinking about time in abstracted ways. You’re free to think meanderingly when you’re working with trees – you’ve really got the time!

Tree work is a strange change of pace from the usual tasks which, more often than not, involve a dilapidated something cleared up, or a wild patch cut away (a mythic hero’s journey in bramble-form: lo, through the impenetrable darkness came the gleaming blade of a pair of secateurs…)

But working with trees is slow.

It’s a thorough lesson in patience, and putting reigns on the temperament of your thoughts.

I would have thought it would suit me, since I’ve always been naturally inclined to the big picture anyway (I tend to think in terms of ice ages rather than current affairs), but because I am working with ancient, native deciduous trees – monitoring sapling that won’t change for years at a time, or transplanting the children of fruiting trees who may not even prove to fruit themselves – it feels a bit scary.

The whole thing is a gamble, a lot of the time.

I find myself pondering outlandish scenarios, like passing the apple seeds through the digestive tract of a bird rather than potting them up on windowsills, to best replicate the way trees manage in the wild. But this leads to all sorts of delving questions about which animal is the best propagator of apples in the Sussex wilds, and whether or not a person can simply… borrow such a creature and have it relieve itself in one’s chosen spot…

This passes for the very cutting edge of horticultural thinking round these parts, and I wonder if I’m not over-complicating things somewhat. This sort of thinking is what the Winter months are for, surely?

 

 

There is a twist to this plot – warnings for mild peril ahead – the poor old damson tree is not well taken care of, and after the hard winter, a forced cut-back, and a flowerless Spring, this year heralded virtually no fruit. Not enough for even a single pot of jam, which is sad. I miss the rituals of this time of year (not so much the infuriating jar sterilising, more the harvesting with homemade baskets, like Ratty, Badger and Mole from Wind in the Willows). I feel the success of the tree’s offspring has a certain urgency to it, which does not sit well with the overall glacial pace of the endeavour.

In an ideal world, I would be content with nature’s ideas about sending an army of mini-trees out across the garden, but sadly, it’s not my lawn to give over to the wild.

Apparently living in the ancient and mysterious midst of a boozy fruit grove isn’t everyone’s idea of a blissful garden. Go figure.

 

The Wassail (Charles Rennie Mackintosh)

The Wassail by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

 

 

17th August

We are all custodians of our little patches of earth.

At the end of the day, whether we own them, rent them, or just work on them, we will not be here forever. I hear people talk about gardening legacies, and it strikes me how short a legacy can be: vast structures disappearing in a matter of decades, to be rediscovered like treasure troves just a scant generation or two later, or the sprawling cities of the ancients, just a few feet beneath tangled jungle.

Ten years in the wilderness is a lifetime to something as malleable and erasable as a garden.

The stories of these plots far exceed our own in both directions – far into the past, far into the future. It strikes me sometimes: this place is billions of years old, they say there were lions here once. Before them, great towering caps of ice. Perhaps one day it will be a flooded wetland – playground of millions of sore-throated whooper swans, or patchwork tribes of yet-to-be evolved ducks and waders.

 

David Parfitt

Painting by David Parfitt

Or perhaps, if my plans go as I hope, it will be a forest of mighty oaks –a haven for beast, fowl and all manner of creeping and slithering thing.

Field work

I go diligently about the field at the end of the plot, picking up molehills. It really makes you think. Especially when you overfill your bag – forgetting it’s still clay you’re carrying, because those little moles with their pudgy demon hands have kindly filtered and sifted it for you into pyramids of fine earth, and you forget how heavy it is. I think about the scale of my body struggling to drag bag after bag through the grass, and I think about their tiny bodies – fiendishly strong. The tonnes they must move in a day, their little minds set on what they do: experts of the dark. I think about them, and I’m glad to know them. I’m glad they do what they do, which so helps me out when all I need is good solid earth that I don’t have to cut out like slices of thick, impossible fudge.

mole by Notes from a Compulsive Gardener

Sketch by Notes from a Compulsive Gardener

After collecting as much as I can be doing with on a hot late summer’s day, it’s onto looking for saplings. We have a lot of oak saplings that never make it past ten inches or so – falling either to the field mowers or the deer, and I take their care seriously, even though I know they’ll outlive me to that strange scale again – where nothing makes sense from a human’s perspective.

I’ll be the one setting them up in pots, trimming their leaves to encourage their roots, but it will not be my generation, or even probably two or three that will really be able to relax about the fate of the tree. I will have to take good care of it – watch it for oak diseases, protect it from hungry mouths, or clumsy feet. All the while knowing they never used to need us at all, and there’ll come a time again when these trees certainly won’t miss us.

Majesty 2006 by Tacita Dean born 1965

‘Majesty’ by Tacita Dean 2006

But I want there to be oak trees in that potentially people-less future. It matters to me that these little saplings reach their future, which never really did have anything to do with us. Their ancestors have been great naval warships, and the beams of vast important houses, but they were always meant to be trees, and I only want them to be trees.

As long as they keep finding the light, I’ll keep taking them out of harm’s way, and I’ll put them back when they’re too big for mowers and deer.

11th Sept 2018

I haven’t written in a while because I have been greatly occupied out of doors – something which is now possible with serious vigour, because the sun has finally finished with its infernal shenanigans and we have real weather – like clouds, and drizzle, and wind.

Today a great grey covering of promised rain is being sulkily withheld for the third day in a row, and everyone in the house is both sleepy and tense – a most uncomfortable cocktail – like a late Summer hangover.

I have torn out a humongous hedge which has been creeping out further and further, with its middle getting deader and deader. Beastly, furious work, but it’s left me with a hole to fill, and a gardener loves nothing better than a scrap of blank canvas, even if the ground underneath is brittle as old chalk! It’s a new challenge, a full call-to-arms first thing in the morning. It is a sense of purpose, and an inexplicable current of energy…

All this means that the season is about to turn over.

Harvest tractors plague the country roads, there is a smell in the air.

Autumn is coming.

 

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July 10th

We are not amused.

It is too hot.

I am an English gardener, not a sun worshipper – not a sitter-on-beaches or a basker-in-parks interloper. I should be at rest only during the harshest winter (after a long year’s work), and yet, here I am, not in the garden…

I hide in shade or lurk in cold baths, flashing mossy fangs at people suggesting social events during daylight hours. I don’t mind a summer thunderstorm – how can one resist the decadence of storms? When the cling-film sunshine is overcome by the velvet of actual weather? – But the sun these days is a bully.

Like the grass, I turn brittle in the heat. A newt left out on a paving slab. A dry seed-head rattled by the kick of a leaping grasshopper – legs scraping like nails on a comb. Everything papery and stubbled.

We islanders talk a good game about craving the sunshine, but we still need our regular watering…

I begin to dream seriously of Elsewhere.

 

The soul makes a katabasis. The mind dips deep below the surface, and in a cool place, shimmers. For everything there is a waiting time. Enforced stillness. Lessons whispered in the breath between phrases.

 

This, I suppose, makes the intensity lovely.

 

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