Monthly Archives: November 2014

Sedum come, sedum go

I have a love/hate relationship with Sedum spectabile. My wife, a schoolteacher, simply cannot abide the stuff. It always seems to come into flower just as the school term starts in September, and so its connotations for her – and perhaps other teachers – are all to do with the end of the summer holidays, and the start of the long haul to Christmas.

On the other hand, I love it for its late summer display, and even more for its function as a bee-magnet in those days when other flowers are fading fast. But I am also unhappy that it is so very much associated with the ending of the season, and represents a last burst from the herbaceous borders before everything collapses. Not that Sedum ever wilts, its strong and fleshy stems stand firm against autumn rains and first frosts, even when the flower heads have long since turned from deep pink to a murky brown. Those flower heads can hold a prodigious amount of water too, as I know to my cost – cutting them back after a few days of rain gives the gardener an impromptu shower. It does also flop outwards from its centre, and is thus a strong candidate for a May (‘Chelsea’) chop to encourage shorter flowering stems later in the summer.

Anyhow, I have spent many an hour over the past couple of weeks cutting it back at The Manor, where there are masses and masses of it. And just now I have been doing the same in my own garden, albeit on a far more domestic scale (at least I am allowed to have some at home). 

Sedum spectabile in full flower on 3rd September, just as the school term started (of course). I counted over 70 bees – and this is one of dozens of plants in the garden.

Wet November

Since the clocks changed, the days have been fairly miserable. There have been a couple of lovely days, like last Friday when the sun shone warmly all afternoon and it was possible to keep working until almost five before the dusk settled. At one point, busy as I was cutting back herbaceous growth at The Manor, I found myself thinking it was spring rather than autumn. It is odd how, every so often the turns of the year can feel like one another – spring like autumn, autumn like spring. It may have been the rooks, whose incessant cawing accompanied me through the garden all day until it was replaced by the staccato coughs of pheasants going to roost.

But for much of the time it has rained, and made everything soggy, muddy and drab. Herbaceous plants have turned from growth to mush seemingly overnight. Grass cutting has been more or less impossible. At one of my gardens the mowers had been out before I arrived, and large patches of lawn were chewed-over and ruined. Nothing to do but leave them to recover for now. One frost is all we’ve had so far, and that barely enough to cover the lawn.

Bulbs continue to go in – mostly tulips now, but I have been presented with a few late daffodils and crocuses which are better off in the ground than going mouldy in their bags. At the same time, many alliums which were planted a few weeks back are already showing through, and a cursory scrape of the topsoil reveals many other spring bulbs putting out strong shoots.

At the almshouses I have been tidying and cutting back gently – leaving plants to die back naturally where possible, as I do in my own garden by and large. At The Manor, however, I have to take a much stricter approach – anything which will not last out the winter must be taken down  to ground level, leaving only Hellebores, Digitalis and some grasses standing above the bare soil. 

I know that the ‘artfully frosted’ look, always so beautifully photographed in the garden design books, is very hard to achieve – and utterly dependent on there being some bright, cold, frosty days at some point in the winter. But I still prefer leaving some plants to catch the cold and light as winter passes through. And, of course, it is better for wildlife which can find a winter home in all sorts of unattractive (to human eyes) decaying vegetation. I am sure the fat frog I had to turf out of his home deep in the wreckage of a slimy Hemerocallis clump would agree. 

The politics of bare soil

I am sure that this isn’t original or new, but I found myself mulling – at length – on the subject of bare soil, whilst weeding – at length – bare soil. What, I found myself asking, is the point? Not of the weeding, after all weeding is all about ‘vegetable hygiene’ and allowing the plants one wants to retain the upper hand over those which would otherwise run amok. No, what is the point of the bare soil?

And the bare soil I am thinking about here is not the earth awaiting plants, the dug-over plot, the seed bed anticipating the sower. I am thinking of the soil which is kept permanently devoid of growth, permanently bare (indeed, barren) for effect. This is not – at least not in mild, moist, lowland maritime western Europe – a natural state for the earth to possess. It exists only as the product of effort, of sustained physical labour.

Bare soil seems to say two things at least, and maybe more. One is that there is no need to cultivate it. The bare soil speaks (ironically) of abundance and surfeit, of having more land than one quite knows what to do with. It is ostentatious in its resistance to the green which would otherwise overtake it. ‘Look,’ it says, ‘I have land aplenty. I have no need to extract vegetable growth from every last corner.’ It is to this extent the antithesis of the cottage garden and the potager (and the majority of domestic gardens), which are crammed to the edges with plants – flowers, vegetables, salads and the rest.

The other thing it says is that the owner has the resources to expend on keeping it bare. Just as a manicured lawn is a sterile, labour-intensive enterprise, so too is the bare earth surrounding a specimen tree or shrub. It takes the business of gardening to an extreme whereby it replaces the efforts of growing things with the greater effort of stopping things from growing.

Of course, there is an aesthetic dimension too. The single tree or shrub surrounded by a blank bed of earth is allowed to stand for itself. To this extent the bare earth is a frame, a surround. It both contains and contrasts, focusing the gaze on the object we are meant to look at.

It is, therefore, no accident that this aesthetic belongs to the formal, aristocratic style of gardening. It rejoices in a kind of reverse excess, whereby land and labour are devoted to the cultivation of nothing.

In this context, perhaps, the weeds can be seen as the sans-culottes of the garden, struggling to possess the empty space, to occupy the void and make it their verdant own?

And the gardener, whose side am I on?