Thursday, 10 November 2011

The real mundane - Highlands

OK, time to break it to you.  Not all gardening is enjoyable.   Here's a bit I don't enjoy but require myself to do, not in a self-flagellating way, more as another way of stepping onwards.  It is time to Take The Cuttings.

A pall of ennui, possibly even accidie, drops over me even as I say these words.  I know I waxed reasonably enthusiastic back in October when talking about Christopher Lloyd, but that was when I was younger.  Now it's all just part of the same old same old, a rat-race, a cage.  Nothing matters much to me anymore you see.  There's nothing special about taking cuttings - it's just exactly what it seems to be.  No more, no less.  If I could turn back the clock maybe I could see where I went wrong and how to tell the true from the fake.  Maybe I'd know what things mean again.

So you'll be wondering why I'm getting so down about it all.  The answer is that I'm trying it on.  That is, I'm trying on the worn-out, nearly extinguished persona that Dylan explores in his song Highlands.  He's not completely wrong when it comes to this particular gardening practice. You know those bits on gardening television programmes when they start to take cuttings?  That's when I run out of the room.  I'd rather take them myself than watch someone else going on and on about it.  But he may be overstating it when he talks about "insanity smashing up against my soul".  That seems excessive.

Because it's not complicated.  Let's sum it up as painlessly as possible, reducing the matter to its basic utilitarian essence.  I  take a batch about now every year.  They're for economy and replacement of future possible losses.  I should think about 80 to 90 percent are successful.  Try not to yawn.  Try thinking about being somewhere else, far from here - with the twang of the arrow and the snap of the bow perhaps.

OK - a bit more commitment.   I take two types at this time of year -  first, grey and evergreen shrubs. They are the backbone of many of my plantings and gardens, quite expensive to buy and very easy.  Not easy enough to stop me feeling like a prisoner in a world of mystery though.

First step for the first type - run round the garden gathering pieces of all the things you want more of next year. Look for plants that retain their leaves and branches, however small; this is not the time to take cuttings of herbaceous perennials.  Things like hebes, santolinas, cistus, sages, shrubby phlomis and salvias, rue, helianthemums, lavenders, helichrysums, euonymus, skimmias and euphorbias.  You might need a heel on some of them.  Next - get a bucket half full of potting compost and mix it with half a bucket of grit or sharp sand.

Put the mixture in small pots, press it down well.  Now make small holes with a stick, and insert the cuttings, which you have divided into short, firm, unflowered, unbranched pieces and from which you have removed the bottom few leaves, up to the point where they will be in the soil in pot.

I hope that doesn't sound complicated.  Now all you have to do is use your fingers to really press the soil firmly round each cutting. I remember my mother stamping on peas she had just sown, looking meaningfully at me, age twelve, and pointing out "they're like children, they need resistance".  And these are the things  that cuttings need: small pots, gritty compost, and that same resistance, best achieved by pressure.  You want them to develop a conscience and then some nice little roots from the callouses that will form.

The protagonist in the song would take that conscience straight to the pawn shop, seeing no point in anything any more and thinking that as he's lost most of his humanity, he might as well sell a little more off.   Of course, I don't really believe him, the elderly, irritable person in the song is struggling with his predicament.  He's pretty fed up and nothing has any zest or flavour, now his powers are gone.  He has nowhere specific to go but walks about. There's a hypnotic riff in the background with a beat for every soft-soled step.

So water your cuttings, then put them in something transparent but closed, like a cold-frame, or an old upturned fishtank.  I tend to give them (especially the hebes) a single blast with a systemic fungicide.  Then all you need do, throughout the winter, is check them occasionally for grey mould.  If some are rotting off, pull them out and dispose of them.  In the race between rooting and rotting, the greys need to get to the finishing post reasonably quickly. If a lot are rotting off, let more air in.  Be casual, but determined.

In the spring you might be lucky enough to feel a little excitement again.  The cuttings may straighten up and look like they're taking an interest, they may start to make new shoots and leaves.  When they do, check they've made roots by upending the pot in your hand.  Then you can joyfully and thankfully, knowing it was all just a bad dream, pot them off separately and grow them on until they're big enough to plant out.

This part of my garden is full of the sort of shrub we have been increasing.  It's very winter-populated and weed-resistant.

That was a long detour after the first type of cutting, we almost had time to have an argument with a waitress in an empty restaurant.  Now we'll get back to the second kind of cutting - roses and deciduous shrubs.

 Dig a bit of sharp sand into a shaded but not densely dark spot, cut straight, unbranched unflowered pieces off the bushes, take the bottom few leaves off, stick them in the sandy bit, press down hard around, water, walk away.  Do not disturb till you see good new growth  much later next year.  Then move them to where you want them.  So simple - it's a shame not to do it really.
The advantages of taking both kinds of cuttings now, so late, is that you don't have to contend with managing the shading and watering demands, which can be super-sensitive.  They won't stand drying out.  You'll barely need to water either type, as water is not being sucked away by the sun and the air is damp.  Plus you do it all in one go and get it out of the way. 

So we're on a knife-edge, tired of gardening, perhaps, or even tired of life.  And Highlands, on the album Time Out Of Mind, is a song where the singer, regretting his age, tries to work out a way forward.  Michael Gray showed me how to love this song;  have a look at his Encyclopedia entry if you have yet to be seduced.

Highlands is, to me, relentlessly real, telling and asking how it feels to be older and barely visible, mapping the mundane seconds and moments.  The singer is hunting for an escape from his own indecisive, powerless, sorry self.  He has less and less to say, less and less to want or wish for.

Strangely enough, the way out seems to be in Scotland.  Or somewhere with Highlands.  The song is punctuated with evocations of those gentle but fair Northern lands.  Here's a picture of the Burns monument in Edinburgh, distantly behind a variegated, evergreen border - Burns of course wrote a rather trite poem called My Heart's in the Highlands.  Dylan uses his own song to call him on it.  Your heart's in the Highlands.... really?

The singer pretends to rely on hunting amongst blazing bluebells, honeysuckle and buckeyed trees to lift him out of his misanthropic depression.  He talks away for a few verses about how pointless and tasteless life is, then has another go at thinking about his Scottish escape.  It's like Nirvana, perhaps it's even a fountain of youth.

I wish I had a decent photograph of our British bluebells.  There are just a few in the photograph above, and it's not a wild setting.  They are our best wild flower, you can get sheets and sheets of them in hazel coppice woodland, blazing away and scenting the air, like low-lying celestial mist.  Nowhere else in the world has so many, we should be proud and happy every May. I'd like to believe they'd brighten the loneliest,saddest person's life, but the reality may be that that's simply not true.

Although he's mainly lost interest in life, the singer gives himself away when he goes into a restaurant.  He's clearly hoping for some sort of connection, if not something to eat.  Legs, eggs, or just a chat.  He attempts a conversation, a bit of banter would pick him up.  Look round any supermarket, you can nearly always see someone feeling the same real need.  Sometimes indeed, it might be you, or me.

There are good jokes in the song.  They're wry, sly, delicately allusive.  It's a pleasure to hear the words so clearly and pick out their multiple meanings and intricate echoes. The interaction is prickly.  It is sub-flirtatious, aslant, suspicious, challenging, and sublimely, infinitely, ordinary.   This is a song that seems slight, if long, to begin with, but with attention, turns into Godot.

This charged, fragile and unsatisfactory encounter seems to have helped.  As he steps into the busy street he seems lifted out of himself, just enough to face the truth of his own feelings.  You can follow the movements of his body, and the movements of his mind, moment by moment.  He states the truth, the party's over, he'd change places with anyone young if he could.  It's real.

He thinks again about those Highlands, but decides he doesn't quite need them now, his new eyes mean he's got them in his mind and can get to them if he needs to.  Life is mundane.  And that little chat, which asked for nothing and got nothing in the end, well it still helped, he's still alive, still walking about. My take on the song differs from Michael Gray's at this point.  I know they argued, and she gave him no comfort, but she took him for what he was and she made him feel alive.  And they discussed food, art and feminist literature - what more do you want?   Mr Gray thinks the lift at the end comes from the phrase "over the hills and far away".  It is lovely, and beautifully sung, but it's not where things change.

I didn't enjoy taking those cuttings, but I'm pleased I have.  They were mundane, but I think they'll be real.  And the song reminds me that gardening should not really be a misanthropic escape from life and other people.  We may not be brilliant, and we may not be in love, but we can always make each other feel real for a moment.


  1. Burns monument?? The picture shown is the largest monument to a writer in the world - the Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens Edinburgh - a monument to Scots author Sir Walter Scott.

  2. Jolly glad you're paying attention. No, of course, I mean, oops. Bang to rights. Sorry to all Scots, Scotts and authors.