Thursday, 1 March 2012

Fleeting - Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You

Today was delicious - sunny, mild, chirpy, busy.

Enter the new gardening season - Spring swept across the fields, and  through the dry bones of last year.  Sweet but peremptory, she ignored the muttered cries of  "too early" and "call that a winter?"

And I'm willing to try for unmitigated joy and cheerfulness.  But I know it won't work for long.  Prices must be paid.  No pleasure is unalloyed.  Time to get in there and point out the challenges of spring.

First of all, brevity.  The snowdrops are nearly over, finished and past already.   Some people enjoy discussing whether snowdrops are a winter or a spring flower.  I am not one of these.  They're on the cusp, between the two, obviously.  But as they swell their seeds and start to look heavier and more disorganised, I am reminded that they're not native and that the doubles are more impressive, and last longer.

But are they Bad Doubles that provide no nectar?  Can gardens repair the damage inflicted on wildlife by agriculture?   Wouldn't it be better to require agriculture to follow environmental practices? Are we being seduced by responsibility and duty? Can duty be pleasure?  I meant to be brief, but one thing leads to another.

Well I'll leave those questions hanging, like the pendulous flowers of the snowdrops. A little bit of research suggests that even the single ones are rarely used by insects, being awkward of access.  I'll leave it with you at this point, though we probably need an answer pretty quick, it being time to split and spread the clumps.

A plea for shrubs though; even camellias, singles or semi-doubles, attract plenty of foraging insects.  They're particularly suited to meaty great bumblebees, being in scale.  Winter-flowering honeysuckles too, lonicera purpusii for instance, seem to attract more insects than the  flowers so close to the ground.  Still I wouldn't say that my observation has been systematic or sustained.  Just a wild jab really.  Always keen to put in a word for the shrub, raised canopy where possible, shade lovers at their feet.

Brevity increases urgency.  The frogs seem to feel strongly about that.  To tell the truth I've become slightly embarrassed to walk near our pond, at one side of the house.  The desperate sudden halt in activity amongst the frogs suggests I am not wanted, you can feel them longing for me to just go AWAY.  They have no concern for the blushing observer of course - it's just that you need a bit of peace to have an orgy.  Their choices about where to leave the products of their couplings seem poorly thought through - I often have to rearrange it a bit, to avoid it drying out, heaped up as it is above the water level.

I find that, contrary to my gleaned information, frogs and newts seem to share the pond, although time may tell me something different. I have added three apparently duckweed-eating goldfish, with great trepidation, imagining a complete over-tipping of a  rather shaky balance.  So far all is well, if turbulent.

Time to announce the song - a simple one about a sleepover. Just as Spring alights, like a dancer on the year, promising to stay a little, offering everything she has for a limited time only, so Dylan's protagonist offers us his presence, ostensibly for a night, casting all plans and expected timings to the wind.

The title of the song is an announcement too - Tonight, I'll be Staying Here With You.  This song completed Nashville Skyline - an album where there is constant talk about nights and days, how to spend them, who to spend them with - good questions for anyone's life.

Anyway his mind seems to be made up; his ticket and suitcase are thrown away,  his seat offered to someone who really needs it and he appears content with his decision to give in to his desires and stay the night.  But for the person he is addressing, how can such a partial, temporary commitment feel?  One wonders whether it is more of a promise to stay or a threat to leave, or perhaps most accurately, a promise to leave.  As the announcement that he will stay is made, the questions are thrown into the air, just like the apparent arrival of spring in the UK.

So we started with brevity, and I remind myself of something that happens every year - spring, like age, speeds time up.  I know this is not news, but it's always shocking.  Suddenly I spot those circles of crocuses on the dual carriageway again.  They've been there for years, never increasing, though perhaps the colours thicken a little.  Council contractors mow round them till their leaves die down.  Perhaps they replenish them too.

Anyway, they last a moment only - I notice them one day beginning to open, phut, they're gone, the next thing is happening;  daffodils under the city walls, catkins lengthening and shaking in the wind, willows pale vibrant green.  Suddenly it's tulips and leaves everywhere, I've barely turned round, barely slept, what happened?  Where did it all go?  This year I mean to hang on, breathe, notice, be part of it all, but it's going again already, arrowing through time, flower to flower.  It's as fast as a song and about as long as a sleepless night.

It's probably the rapid succession of familiar events that causes this sense of time speeding up.  New experiences seem to lengthen time but known signposts and markers hurl you through it.  That awful query about the number of springs we have left to us, surely we have all wondered about that, and as quickly halted the wondering, turning to a surer comfort.  Here is one, a crocus I have mentioned before - sieberi tricolor, reliable and charming.  More telling than tommasianus, more delicate than the Dutch hybrids, just as fast of course.

For a gardener, spring is brief for another reason too - sheer pressure of stuff to do.  And that's my second drawback or problem.  One I don't plan to dwell on, it being a bit dull.  It's inescapable though - an edge of panic impedes the stately progress I plan to make, through the tasks and requirements of the moment.  Nothing to be done but get on with it.  Quickly!  Don't hang about!  Weed, plant, feed, mulch, sow seeds, move things, sort out, lay out, jump, run, delve.

And now the third challenge, the weather.  I'm not even talking about our lack of rain here or the unseasonable warmth.  No, it's that T. S. Eliot thing about the lilacs and the dead land.  Here I bring you a different quotation, which I hope you will enjoy for its piercing accuracy

"Those cruel drying March winds do so much terrible damage, or at least they put a finishing stroke to many a struggling invalid, shaken but not killed by the winter's frosts.  If only they could tide over another week or two the warmer ground would help along the growth of their new roots, and enough sap would run up to equalise their loss by transpiration......An aged cistus bush will often be the first to show the bill is coming in......I hate the grey sapless look of the pastures during this spell of dry cold, and the arrest of progress in the flower beds.  They look emptier than a week before, and plants seem to shrink, and ground turns lighter in colour and shows out more conspicuously."

This is from that beloved old Edwardian buffer, E. A. Bowles, of Myddelton House.  He wrote such interesting and readable books, three of them - Spring, Summer, and Autumn and Winter together.  He's  chatty, and kindly, and observant; he sometimes makes terrible jokes.  And he points things out like the one above, that place him right at your side, commiserating in a friendly but clever fashion.  I visited his garden, before its restoration.  It was packed, end to end, with scilla bifolia, never seen in such quantities before or since.  A little blue fuzz of flowers, like an azure ear of wheat.  I could almost see him bending down to introduce it to me, portly but beaming.

If cold, dry springs are bad, hot dry springs may be only slightly better.  We want succulence, turgidity, plumpness.That's why heather looks so inappropriate I think; they do not speak to us of youth, those tiny dry bells.

So brevity, urgency and fickleness, even if only of weather, are the themes of spring.  Our song deals in the same currencies, gently in the Nashville Skyline version.  But listen to the Rolling Thunder version on The Bootleg Series, volume 5.  Be prepared for a different song, one that is quite passionate, a commanding voice, almost threatening in its determination.  Be here now - that rather annoying phrase - takes on new life.  The singer's here for a short time, giving it everything he's got.

Sieze the day. Audience to the singer, gardener to the spring, grab it, make the most of it.  We don't have many you know.


  1. Was thinking of T.S. Eliot also, April is the cruelest month. I love the spring talk, the photos. we had snow yesterday...first since October. Looking forward to my gardening and decorating my patio. I miss my yard but with a full plate of life, I think between the patio and the woods, I will be happy. I love the crocus photo. We have a tulip festival in May here and I will post some on my page. Enjoy the chirping! gin

  2. You are so lucky, my frogs are shy, lay spawn silently at night, very seldom seen and hardly ever heard, I have about two tble spoons of the stuff! I have been told the previous owner killed them, he thought that they were the cause of blanket weed!( which my fish regard as a huge treat).Love the columm, I think it should be a book.Jen

  3. You are so lucky, my frogs are shy, lay spawn silently at night, very seldom seen and hardly ever heard, I have about two tble spoons of the stuff! I have been told the previous owner killed them, he thought that they were the cause of blanket weed!(which my fish regard as a huge treat).Love the columm, I think it should be a book.Jen

  4. Thanks Gin and Jenny for your comments. Lovely to hear from you. We have rain and cold today so spring didn't stay for long. Most gratified by your final thought Jenny, can't think how to achieve such a thing.