Monday, September 21, 2009

Sacred seasons

We went to services to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish High Holidays, last Friday. By a coincidence of calendars Ramadan, the holy month of Islam during which believers fast each day until nightfall, ended Saturday; we had attended a Ramadan iftar (the evening meal that breaks the fast) a couple days earlier. By a coincidence that has nothing to do with the calendar, we added a third stream of spirituality to sacred September by taking part in a triple gong meditation and yoga session at a yoga center in Plymouth the previous Saturday.
It’s always intrigued me that Rosh Hashanah marks the new year in the Jewish calendar. In fact, you can make a good argument for placing the start of the year in September. We start our school years then; we go back to work after summer vacations. It’s the season of renewed energy following the relaxation and idleness of summer. Admittedly when spring comes around, it will look to me like a season of new beginnings as well. The larger point may be that we give our annual journey various starting points because beginnings are important to human beings. Life, if we’re lucky, runs a long course. We are almost always in need of renewal.
For the most part, things are dying back or otherwise declining in the flower and vegetable gardens this time of the year. After working to get plants to grow for three or four months, now I spend most of my time outdoors helping them age gracefully. I go around with the clippers in hand, trimming off dead foliage or dead-heading flowers. I cut down stalks whose blossoms have long faded, just for looks: Let’s put the spotlight on the good-looking stuff by cutting the decaying plant matter out of the picture. The garden’s height, certainly as measured in biomass, is long over. Plants which extravagantly exceeded their allotted space at the height of the growing season, channeling a rainy summer into an opulence of green foliage on long leafy branches and tangled vines were trimmed months ago. The rain forest look of midsummer has retreated to a more austere and temperate aspect; the garden puts on a different face for summer’s final month.
Some perennials collapse steadily after a June bloom, giving you nothing to look at. Columbine retreats to a few low stems and leaves; spiderwort turns brown, decays, and leaves nothing of itself but a ghostly outline on the soil. Even the sturdy evening primrose dries up before your eyes; the foliage browns at the edges and looks increasingly like something you threw in the rag pile. You wonder whether you should slice the whole colony down to the roots; or transplant some; or find some way to get a later blooming partner to share the space.
But some plants, as if fighting inevitable senility, revive after a mid-summer swoon. They like the cooler weather; their foliage doesn’t dry and wilt in the sun. Day lilies, at least the old-fashioned kind, die back almost to nothing in August after finishing their July bloom, but stage a greenly vigorous September resurrection. They don’t flower again, but their vivid color perks up the neighborhood.
Some perennials do give a late round of flowers. The overly abundant spirea, extensively pruned simply to allow access to the circular path around it has presented us with a new, though smaller blanket of red flowers (cutting off all the dry brown flower heads probably helped). Other plants, some of our lavender and salvias, enjoy a second, modest retrospective flowering. The word they used to use on record albums, reprise, captures it – a shorter version of a smashing tune. Let us have a reprise! declare the stella d’oro day lilies, the catmint, the roses, and even the clematis – which sends forth a few sky blue offerings, pieces of recollected heaven, three months after the last of its full early bloom.
And some plants are only now coming into flower, as if to give the annual fruit and vegetable harvest a floral accompaniment, like flag wavers at a festival. They walk along the parade route bearing colored ornaments while the harvest wagons, the apple pickers, the potato diggers, the pumpkin fields, and the nut trees do the heavy the autumn lifting.
We have some of these late flowers, asters, mums, the anemones (which I’ve mentioned before), plus an oversized Montauk daisy that needs pruning after its day in the sun this year. And, oddly, a few plants you expect more out of in summer are doing much better now than they have all year. Butterfly bush, a summer-long bloomer, is making stronger blooms now, with time running out. I’m used to this pattern in annuals that don’t produce enough blooms until September because the plants took all summer to get big – a problem I usually attribute to tool little sun or some failing on the gardener’s part (like buying cheap annuals). But this year the back garden’s butterfly bush not only has more flowers this month but their color is deeper – or is that a trick of the light? In the clean, but slanted light of summer’s end, all the darker colors of the garden seem more intense. Tall phlox, stalky violet asters, purple loosestrife vibrate in September light (maybe because the competition has been cleared away?).
The other butterfly bush, the one in the front garden, is making more flowers now too, but here I know the reason. I transplanted it there in June (one of the season’s good decisions) from a semi-shade spot in the back where for several years it did not get what it wanted and sulked continually. Now it can’t stop smiling.
So is that the lesson – take advantage of that cool September energy? At least that’s what the yoga master said before sounding her three healing gongs with their utterly unearthly music of the spheres. Clear away; focus. Get down to business.
Spend your energy now, the garden seems to be telling me as well. Plenty of time to sleep later on.