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.



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.



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.

Bird Stress

I was weeding a flowerbed when the birds in my wild black cherry tree set up a racket of full-throated panic. It sounded like one bird was raiding another bird’s nest. How sad, I thought, and looked up into the tree.

It was very tall but, as wild black cherry trees in Michigan often are, ratty. cherriesIt had thin spots, jagged edges way up high, rambly bare twigs, but still managed to produce a bumper crop of fruit suitable only for chipmunks, a thin scrim of flesh over a fat seed.

I never suspected that tree to harbor as many birds as now came flying out of it, going in crazy circles, chirping wildly: wren, tufted titmouse, robin, cardinal, finch, jay, and others too obscured by leaf, noise, and movement to identify. Clearly some predator was afoot, or a-wing.

Zerlina, attracted by the hubbub, came to the screen door and I saw her eyes go big and round. What she saw before I did was a very large bird, flying out of the tree with something dangling from its talons, the tail of a something small and four-footed trailing behind it as it crossed my lawn. Not a mouse, Zerlina; a chipmunk.

My, I thought, that bird sure looks like an owl. It sure looks like the Great Horned Owl that spent the early spring hooting at our bedroom window at five a.m. every morning. But it couldn’t be an owl. It was 10:30 in the morning. It must be a hawk.

It flew to the broad, sturdy, horizontal branch of another tree. It was busy now, holding its victim under one foot, beaking at it, sitting up now and then to look one way and then another. While it was occupied I went inside for my binoculars. The sound of the screen door caused the Large Bird to look directly at me as I raised the binoculars. Big round yellow eyes. Ear tufts. All the right markings. It was the Great Horned Owl.

Maybe by owl time this was a midnight snack.bleeding heart

Were all those birds in that tree to start with? I’d never seen such a conglomeration before. Had they joined together to make enough fuss to drive the owl away? A battle plan from a random set of birds seemed like a stretch. Were they like bystanders at a flaming car wreck, drawn to see the disaster for themselves? Being human, all I can think of are human options. What was in the hearts of those birds?



Dark Days

Dark days in the towns and cities, but the light in the skies of Michigan doesn’t go out until after nine at night this time of year. I have brought the seedlings downstairs, the ones I started from seed weeks ago, Black Pearl, Supersteak, Indigo tomatoes. After dinner I go back into the garden and plant them, deep, the way tomatoes like to be planted. Stand them up, lay them down, wherever they meet with earth they root into it, anchor themselves, draw sustenance, grow tall, make flowers, and set fruit.



They are out there now, waving their little green hands in the evening wind, on their way to keeping faith with the promises of the seed companies and the hopes of the gardener.

These are days when I so need the garden. It is good to have a place where faith and promises are kept and hope sustained.

In Earnest

The overnight frost alerts have ended, and real gardening begins. Though I have liberated the emerging ferns and mayapples from the suffocating grip of garlic mustard, filling yard waste bag after bag with it because no one wants garlic mustard in their compost, I am going to have to leave the rest of it to go to dreaded seed. It is time to move on to the fenced garden, and ready it for the tomato plants currently waving from the upstairs window.

asparagusThe fenced garden has already been producing asparagus. This is another of many fine things I enjoy as the fruit of someone else’s labor: I moved into the house one summer, and the next spring all this asparagus appeared with no effort on my part. I had never seen asparagus in its neonatal condition, and it made me laugh. It looks for all the world like someone snuck out into the garden when nobody was looking, and stood a lot of asparagus spears up in the dirt as a joke.

dogwoodAnd then there’s the dogwood tree: another example of something wonderful that just showed up that first spring. Wanting to add my contribution to all this largesse, it pleases me no end to think of the future householders looking out the window to what was once my yard on a fine spring day – and may it be many years from now – to be greeted by the daffodils I planted and the redbud trees I have placed as understory in the woods, and see that someone loved this place, and worked to make it more beautiful.



Dogwood in May

I have done nothing to deserve this tree.
When it was planted I was far away,
and those who lived here never thought of me
as each year’s petals whitened into May,
and summer came to silently retrieve
the green it left behind when it moved on.
The planters grew into their time to leave
and gathered their existence, and were gone.
I stand here now with barrow, shovel, rake,
in contemplation of the liberty
I know that I habitually take,
receiving what was never given me,
but with a gardener’s hope, I sow the seed
to make my present what the future needs.



Pandemic Gardening

Landscapers and garden stores are back in business, essential or not, but I find I’m resistant to going into them. Who knows how many people fingered that pot of geraniums before I got to it? Wouldn’t a geranium die if you took it home and sprayed it all over with bleach? I decided to confine myself to sowing some chill-loving seeds, something I always mean to do and leave too long. Of course, this means I have some seeds lying about that should have been planted last year. Or the year before. We’ll see if they germinate: milkweed; campanula; violets.

tulips z

cat tulip tango

One successful experiment has been my “tulip tomato tango.” I learned about this from, where else, a company that sells bulbs. In fall, when you pull the tomato plants up, you put tulip bulbs in those raised beds. Since they’re inside a fence, the deer and rabbits can’t get to them. Plant early to midseason varieties, and in spring you have gorgeous flowers that are finished blooming by the time you want to put in the tomato plants. Not only lovely, but efficient.

I like to say this is me making progress in the garden, but the garden did it mostly on its own. Yes, I planted the bulbs, but then I went inside and did nothing all winter. No weeding, No feeding. That’s my favorite, wonderful thing about bulbs: they show how the natural world makes its own progress, even when the possibility for progress elsewhere is slight.