Toward Thanksgiving

deer chompingOne of the late sources of food for the critters in my yard is the ornamental pear tree. It makes tiny, hard pears about the size of the end of my thumb, inedible for people but irresistible to deer and squirrels. First they eat the ones that fall to the ground, then they indulge in a little topiary.

squirrel peartreeThe tall stalks you can see standing under the tree are the stems of my Siberian Iris. There was a time when I’d have cut them all down, tidying up, but I have seen the error of my ways. I learned that the hollow stems become shelters in which Michigan’s solitary bees can hibernate. This was news to me because I used to live in Southern California, where bees have no need to hibernate. How lovely to discover that I could ditch a chore and be ecologically correct at the same time.

in cloverWe now have serious, white, twinkling frosts most nights, but the clover persists in several raised beds in the garden. There is one corner in particular that has continually generated good luck tokens since October: not only four-leafed clovers, but five-leafed and six-leafed ones! I have been up to my eyebrows in wishes. A friend says that five-leafed clovers must be given away for the wish to come true, but that’s not in my folktale culture. I was raised to believe that giving away good luck like that was a sign of ingratitude. I am cherishing these clovers, exuberant in their late lives, extravagant of leaf in defiance of the lessening daylight. Inspiring. Just to look at them is good luck – though when I wish on them I do close my eyes.

lucky clover

End of the Season

leafy groundNow the leaves are off about half the trees, the lawn a litter of red and gold slowly going brown. Charlie came and mowed, not to cut the grass, but to chop the leaves into mulchy bits for the wind to scatter evenly over the tired yard. I filled brown yardwaste bags with the remains of plants that showed signs of fungus or other disease, and set them out for collection. Then there are all the plants that would be considered healthy except they’re dead. From frost. Tangled pumpkin vines get piled up onto the raised beds from which they escaped. Anything tall and hollow that looks like it could harbor hibernating bees gets left standing. Two of the remaining empty beds get cleared out for tulips.

birdbath deerI put the tulips in the fenced garden to keep the deer from eating them, so I can cut them for bouquets come spring. Narcissus are toxic to deer, so those can go boldly into the front yard, the herb garden, the peony patch – anywhere. Even the most clueless fawn leaves them alone. It’s sort of a wonderful association, isn’t it – narcissus and toxicity. I’m sure there’s an evolutionary explanation for this difference between tulips and narcissus, but how telling that the poisonous flower shares its name with the Narcissus of mythology who fell in love with his own image. Toxic self absorption: the narcissist has a Greek root in common with “narcotic.” Luckily for the deer they have figured this out.

squirrel nutkinTulips however, are edible. A Dutch friend tells me that during wartime when they had nothing else to eat, the Dutch sauteed and ate their tulip bulbs, which were delicious (don’t try this now – today the bulbs are treated with fungicides). So I hoe up a trench in the raised garden bed, and plant the tulip bulbs. I’ve said it before, but it’s still true: the end of one season is the start of another.

Incandescent October

oct blog red treeAutumn is my favorite time of year. This is true even though orange is my least favorite color. I make an exception for it in October: trees, pumpkins, marigolds, be as orange as you want and more glory to you. The colors are especially gorgeous this year, 2020 making up to us a little for its bad behavior. We need all the beauty we can get, and I’m very grateful to have it.

oct blog pathI looked out across my yard this morning to an almost comically busy array of birds and beasts. Squirrels toted chestnuts the size of their heads, deer nosed the ground for fallen crabapples, robins flocked to the red dogwood berries, and the woodchuck wallowed next to the rabbit in the clover. I didn’t get a picture, but you would have thought it was photo-shopped.

oct blog yellow tree chairI felt like a slacker in all this activity – my garden’s pretty much done. There was no frost the night I wrote about last time, but tonight I expect there will be. My task of the day was to gather all the rest of the flowers, if you can call that a task. A gift. An honor. A revelry. An antidote to the news, to the pandemic, to politics. After I brought them in I took another walk under the bright trees: redbuds, sugar maples,  beautiful and enduring native Americans. As are the cosmos, zinnias, and marigolds. It helps to have great heaps of beauty when ugly things are happening. Drown them out, trees and flowers, drown out the ugly noise.


flowers glass vasefrost flower mix

Harvest Before Frost

There was a prediction of frost a couple of weeks ago with warm nights expected to follow, so Doug helped me cover the tomato plants and some of last flowersthe flower beds. An early frost is heartbreaking, because it’s generally followed by weeks of good growing weather – but there are all your plants, dead. So we draped the beautifully named Floating Row Cover over the tops of the tomato stakes, the heads of the zinnias, and the bodies of the eggplants, and went inside. In the morning there was frost on Doug’s car out in the driveway, but none elsewhere. I undraped all the ghostly fabric trappings, folded them up, and brought them in, leaving the tomatoes to ripen in renewed sunlight.

But frost is predicted again, and this time it’s expected over several nights.last fruits Time to bring in the last of the harvest. I saw the globes of green tomatoes, the towers of zinnias, the  blowsy sprays of cosmos, but good heavens, where were all these little pumpkins hiding? I’d been feeling very cross about my crop of Jack Be Littles and Baby Boos producing nothing but huge leaves. Aha! Under the huge leaves, the little pumpkins were laughing at me. Then again, from the top of the compost pile some very large volunteer pumpkins were also laughing at me. These winter squash are quite the tricksters.

compostumpkinI won’t know till morning whether frost got the garden. Frost is another trickster. It brushes past here, settles over there, pools in a place you never noticed and maybe don’t believe is at the bottom of a slope. It may powder the lawn and draw crystals in the birdbath, but when the morning sun hits, they’re gone. You see the damage that was done among the ravaged, tender plants, but the perp is nowhere to be found. There’s nothing to do but gather up the evidence and cart it out to the compost. Partly I’ll be sad. Partly I’ll be wondering what that compost pile will surprise me with next year.

Toward the Equinox

sept flowersSummer slides into fall, and the late bloomers are in their glory. How can I not love that? Cosmos and zinnias that were nothing but leaf and stem through July and half of August are bursting with flowers now, and will keep it up until the frost comes. I chose the zinnia seed by color, mostly creams, pinks, and corals. Cosmos turns out to be available in ruffled versions, as well as the classic wide skirt, so I planted them in a variety of shapes and colors – inside the garden fence, because deer can’t be trusted. The bouquets just keep on coming, and now, finally, they are accompanied by some miniature pumpkins. 

herb garden

 The tomatoes and eggplant still roll in, though slowed by fewer hours of sun. In the herb garden, where the deer tread to their disappointment, the cooking sage is out of flower but behind it the white flowers of garlic chives flourish, and blue Russian sage spills over whatever tried to grow behind that.

clematisBut the star of the yard is the clematis. Remember the clematis? Autumn clematis, it’s called, and the photo shows why. The new trellis supports it well, does an excellent job of keeping it off the asparagus, and has room for another year or two of growth, or so I hope.

deer prints

deer footprints

Meanwhile, I walk around the yard looking for perennials in need of dividing, and for places to put a new haul of narcissus bulbs. There are still weeds to pull, too. It’s always a mistake to slack off – attention must be paid. Paying attention always reaps a reward.

Redbud Riot

redbud 3 aWeeding the front garden bed last week, I discovered a redbud sprout several inches tall. I was sure it wasn’t there the week before; but how could it not have been there the week before, and be several inches tall now? Then I went to thin interlopers out of the lamium, and darn if there wasn’t another redbud. I pulled thistles from under a pine tree, and well, look – a whole redbud grove. There was one in the fenced garden. One in the blueberry cages. One against the garage wall. redbud 5They were everywhere. I had never seen this amount of redbud fecundity before. Was it the long, cool spring? The alternating hot/chill summer weather? Had the deer been eating them before and now suddenly had a change of diet? Was it just because this is the strangest year ever?

redbud 2Well, they are beautiful trees. We planted a couple when we moved in here, but little did we know they would generate so many volunteers. If I’m going to have a redbud forest, I thought I should learn something about their care. So I went online. I read that they live 50 to 70 years, and I read that they seldom lived more than 20. I read that they weren’t picky about soil, and I read that they needed soil that drained well. I read that they liked sun and I read that they required shade. Most disturbingly, I read that they were also called Judas Trees. I was dubious, because they’re small and don’t have the kind of structure a person could easily hang himself from. Clearly, at least half of this information was of very poor quality, and naturally this made me doubt all of it.

redbud 4So the redbuds and I are on our own. We will do this without help from the Magical Intertubes, though I am using them to tell you this tale. I plan to pay close attention to what the redbuds are doing out there, encourage those that thrive, and transplant those that don’t. Dream all you want about a garden, if it’s not a fact-based operation it will fail.

Late Summer Light

late summer 4

compost bin shadows

The weather’s not very different from last month, but the light has changed. You can tell, even in the face of coronavirus time-fuzz, that summer is sliding gently into fall. The blueberry bushes sit leafy but fruitless inside their net cages. Soon I will take the nets off; there’s nothing left for the birds to loot. Tomatoes are rolling in, and every morning brings an armload of cosmos and zinnias to late summer 1bundle into the house for bouquets. The flowers mostly grow in their raised beds, but a few volunteers decorate random spots and edges of the garden. Volunteer cosmos: a lovely phrase.

In addition to Charlie, I’ve had a crew of bunnies trimming my lawn. I’m happy to see them eating clover instead of the flowers edging my deck. In early June there were three bunnies; now there’s just one. What has the summer done with them? Are they eating greener clover somewhere else? Bunnies are a prey species, making them a sort of clover for hawk, owl, and eagle. Everyone has to eat.

late summer 2

scented jasmine tobacco

I always thought animals knew what to eat by instinct, but the fawns have changed my mind. They wander through with their mamas and you’d think they would eat what their mamas are eating. Not exactly. I’ve seen them nibble my foxgloves and jasmine tobacco, both of which are poisonous, and neither of which a smart mama deer will touch. But lately they’ve been leaving the foxgloves and tobacco unmolested. This, I suppose, means they’ve learned something in their first summer on earth. Telling the good from the bad is a skill that comes with experience. I hope they didn’t get too sick learning it.

 

Isolation

herb gardenCharlie came with his ride-on mower and cut my lawn yesterday. During the ban on yardwork my laissez-faire lawn got terribly uneven and lumpy looking, but Charlie has now smoothed it back into a semblance of suburban lawn. This is typically a contact-free event anyway – Charlie drives up in his truck, powers the mower across the yard, runs the trimmer, runs the blower, and off he goes. We like to chat if I’m outside, but in the interest of Social Distancing I’ll just wave for now.

Once Charlie’s finished I go back out. I stroll around most of the yard barefoot, but keep a pair of purple crocs by the backdoor for walking in the woods and garden where there’s mulch, too rough for bare feet. Doug has emptied the basement dehumidifier into a bucket and left it for me on the deck. I pour some of it into a watering can for the indoor plants, and distribute the rest to some of the potted deck plants. The begonias have recovered from their infestation and are leafing back out. The morning glories are halfway up their trellis. The weather has cooled, but the supposedly overheated petunia is still producing striped flowers.

I am isolated, insofar as all my concerts, operas, dinners out, bookstore cloudsbrowsing, lunches with friends, and visits with far-flung family are cancelled. But when I walk outside and see the lawn, the flowers, the garden, the trees, the sky, I feel the calm and satisfaction they have always brought me, huge, deep, and familiar, and other considerations fall away. Deep breaths. Yes, the world is still here. What a relief.

And of course I do have Doug for those hugs, lunches, and dinners.

 

Volunteers

As summer began I realized I wasn’t up for going to the garden store, as I usually do, for annual flowers to fill the pots on the deck. Back in January when I ordered seeds for my tomatoes and tall zinnias and taller cosmos, I had no idea that this would be an issue. Many of the pots had perennials in them – mints for instance. You really want to put mints in a pot. I did have seeds for a variety of basils with leaves ranging from purple to chartreuse; that might work.

But when I finally went out to inspect the flowerpots, I found them sprouting volunteers. Marigolds, yes, those often reseed themselves; what were these other leaves? They looked like petunias. I couldn’t recall having petunias reseed volunteersthemselves before, but this had been a generous spring for horticulture, if not for human health.

An unexpected plant is so often an unwanted plant. Sometimes it’s competing too ferociously with the deliberate plants; sometimes it’s esthetically displeasing – that is, ugly; sometimes it’s just in the wrong place. So I wasn’t going to count on these things turning out to be petunias when they might be some rank weed, sneaking in under cover of their petunia-like foliage. Time would tell.

petuniasAnd time did. Petunias happened spontaneously among the marigolds, with no input from the gardener. Last year’s petunias were one group of black and one group of very pale yellow. The photos show how they organized themselves for their comeback. According to Burpee, “petunias are sensitive to high temperatures and may change color or produce a stripe when they too warm.” The next surprise will be to see if they change to last year’s colors when the weather cools.

So here’s my reminder to myself: when something unexpected comes up, don’t assume it’s no good and trash it. Inauspicious beginnings do not dictate ruinous ends. Give them time.

Solvable Problems

It’s so lovely to have a garden to work in when the world gets crazy. With no one but Doug anywhere nearby I can be outside without a mask for hours and hours, making a difference to the plants in my yard if nowhere else. The garden has problems you can solve.

One of the problems was my autumn clematis. It took me years to establish it, trying to keep its roots cool but its head in the sun, which I finally achieved by planting oregano all around its base. The oregano thickened up nicely, spreading into a nice mat without taking over unauthorized territory. The clematis responded with vigor. And more vigor. Until, even though I cut it back in May, it climbed the five feet of its bamboo and cedar stakes with insouciance and by last week was looking for trellissomewhere else to go. It found the innocently growing ferns of the asparagus patch, and swamped them.

This wouldn’t do. Clearly, I needed a taller trellis over the clematis so it would leave the asparagus alone. Doug was consulted, went into his workshop, and came back with an eight-foot tower. I said, won’t we have to wait till I cut it back again? No, he said, this will go on right over the whole thing. And it did.

You can see the fine lines of the once-captive asparagus ferns in front of the clematis.

No telling how long it will take the clematis to reach the top this time, but that is a problem for another day.