Tuesday, October 20, 2009

October flowers

The ones we know: mums, asters, Montauk daisies, some late bloomers (like the roses out front), dahlias, a flame-up of hardy annuals such as snapdragons. And then, in a class of their own, the toad lilies.
It’s sixty-one degrees at midday today, but it’s been cold. Thursday’s 46 degree high was the lowest since 1884. Friday, christened a northeaster, rain overnight, some showers in the morning, then just cold, wet and windy for the rest of the day. Went to the farmer’s market, nobody there, a couple of farmer-marketers wearing coats, hoods, and two pairs of gloves. We discuss the weather. Saturday merely chill and dark. Sunday was a complete washout; retrieving the Sunday paper from the front porch was as far “outdoors” as I made it. It’s the talk; mid-October should be leaf-peeking time in glorious sunshine.
But the cold rain and chill winds bother me a whole lot more than it does the plants. It’s not yet cold enough to get into their bones. Morning glories are the exception, their leaves froze and flopped and wrinkled up, and that’s probably because we have them growing from pots on the patio. Perennials with their feet firmly in the ground can get blown around, lose blossoms and break few stalks, but remain oblivious to cold air. They sway in the autumn breeze, burnish their seed tips, turn colors in their foliage, and otherwise assume an attractively seasonal sang froid. The garden has fewer bright spots; more subtle shadings and textural effects. The leafy shrubs, wild grasses, lilies, daisies and ground covers make for a subtle complement to the stronger colors of the big trees above them. The garden is just wild enough to suggest a bronzed autumn meadow discovered between forested ravines on a woodland hike.
The back garden’s wild grasses – maiden grass and northern sea oats – wait until fall to send their seed tops up to the fence line. Against a bamboo fence the color tones, copper brown, yellow brown, tawny, resemble the marsh and beach grasses of the imaginary shoreline. (The idea, speaking grandly, is to do all the natural landscapes in miniature. We planted a “flower island” and I circled it in a slightly bluish gravel path to serve as inland sea. Now the challenge is to keep the weeds from overrunning my too shallow sea.)
And out of these autumn colors and textures the occasional, unexpected, half buried treasure. That’s one way to think of the Tricyrtis hirta – or “toad lily.” The leaves are green; or green and white striped (like hostas) and probably bear some relation to the more common lilies. The flower is white with lots of purple or pink markings; spotted, I suppose, like a toad. I bought one and put in the ground the first autumn we were here, about four years ago, knowing nothing about it, and was pleased when it blossomed. Any plant that blossoms in October gets a good rating from me.
This year I bought a couple more, finding them at a good price at a Home Depot. What does it say about our world that you can buy Tricyrtis hirta at Home Depot, a store I once swore I would never go into? Maybe it says we have a growing hunger for flowers, fascinating little creatures that make themselves at home in our real estate and smile, sometimes, on cue.
Toad lilies certainly don’t take their cues from me. I put them in the ground, fertilize the ground around their roots when I get to it or when something else puts me in their neighborhood. Certainly garden plants need some help; we can’t let weeds or neighboring species take over their piece of earth completely. But, in my view at least, they shouldn’t be a continual source of anxiety. I can’t stand the style of garden disciplinarian advice-writers who insist you have to do this or that right, at the right time, or terrible consequences will follow…
If you don’t pull up the “offsets,” or baby plants, that spread from some flowering species (for example), the special color tones of the blooms will decay into something normal. It sounds like a screed against racial impurity. You have to figure out which of three main kinds of clematis you have planted in order to know how and when to prune it, and since the time restrictions all three advisories have lapsed and I still haven’t been able to figure out which brand we have, I will simply do what feels right and endure the mediocre flowering season we’ve been threatened with.
As we endure some bad weather in autumn in order to enjoy the good. And I will try to remember which perennials to prune when I put the gloves on and get my head under the sunshine this afternoon, but I won’t worry too much about it. Taken as a whole, the plants appear to be finding their own way to harmonize and buddy up and stake out their space in the conditions allotted to them. And when we walk around admiring the waving wands of the maiden grass and the bright-eyed mums (wondering, on the side, what approach to take with the leaves this year), occasionally we come across an inexplicable little treasure like a toad lily.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

We live in the trees

We spend four days in the Berkshires. We hike every day, deep in the woods – or
at least deep enough to put the thought of bears in your head – and stare deeply into wood fires at night.
It’s different being home again, but when I see the orange leaves on the maple tree just outside the door I’m aware of a deep continuity between country and city life. A little patch of orange is autumn. Columbus Day weekend in the woods, followed by Columbus Day week in Quincy, the week trees begin to show serious color here. Quincy, a state naturalist once told me, is the “asphalt jungle”; more pavement keeps temperatures a little higher. Our growing season starts earlier, probably lasts a little longer, than it would without all this heat-trapping, heat-emitting development. Global warming begins at home….
But so does autumn. If you can see the universe in grain of sand, you can see a forest in a patch of orange. The sun comes out this morning, after a rainy day, putting me face to face with the brilliant colors just beyond my kitchen window.
And while the asphalt jungle will keep some garden plants blooming longer – though not long enough to turn the tiny developmentally delayed white flowers on my pepper plants into table-pleasing green peppers – I realize another fine landscape-hopping term has an even greater claim our attention: the urban forest. It’s a habitat; our own. The trees live here, on our quiet residential streets; we gather around their roots. From an upper-story perspective ours is a planet of trees. At least New England is.
Get far enough out of town, any town, get some elevation, and when you look down at the world mostly what you see is trees. This is true, to a surprising extent, even in a place as densely built as Quincy, a city with only the foggiest notion of what is meant by “open space.” Most of the trees here elbow in beside us in the built environment. We have, regrettably, some single family houses without a tree out front or even in the back, but mostly the urban forest hangs on, and in many places flourishes.
The blocks in our urban neighborhoods where the tree coverage is thick, long fingers of oak and maple reaching toward one another over the roadway, are the blocks people want to live on. These are the places that look like “home.” For people born in this part of the world, who like what they’re used to (as most everyone does), living in a loosely grown woodland, a semi-natural environment, is what we expect. It feels “natural.”
We live almost within the classical notion of a wooded park – a place where the trees are spaced far enough apart so that people can easily walk between them, or ride in their carriages, on their horses, or run their dogs (or hunt, but let’s not go there); and are allowed to grow tall overhead.
It’s part planned, mostly accidental (or, we could say again, natural). The developer plots the shade tree in front of the house; everybody in my childhood home’s straight-line Long Island development got a sycamore tree in the front yard. Thirty years later, when the landscaping grew up, I was shocked to find my parents living in a lush green world where the locusts screamed in the summer night. In Quincy, the city plants trees along the roadways in the little strips of green space between the sidewalk and the road – if you ask for one. City planners know that trees are good for cities, even in dense commercial districts where they soften the look, cool the asphalt jungle, absorb the carbon dioxide, shade the sidewalks, and eat up some of the noise and over-stimulation simply by giving the senses something else to focus on. They exude calm. Persistence; endurance. Strength, fertility, acclimation.
They have a message for us. Do we want to survive, evolve, grow, thrive – live – in the world? Then be like the trees.
No wonder we still seek at times to live within their physical, and metaphysical, shelter. In the autumn we go to the forests, or the forested highways, to look at the leaves. We say we are going to take pretty pictures with our eyes, but we may also be paying an unconscious form of homage. We want to get close to the building blocks of our universe. The trees hold up our skies and shelter our lives beneath their roofs.
And each autumn they perform a glorious finale to the season of growth and then drop their leafy light-seeking lineaments to earth without complaint, in the annual sacrifice the climate demands. We thank them for preserving the world for another year.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Don’t give up the fight

October arrives and right on schedule, it’s cold. Under fifty when I get out of bed. Not too cold for the plants yet, which look the same as the day and the week before as I regard them from the other side of the window, but too cold for me to want to step outdoors before breakfast and take a closer look. That’s the difference. I miss my morning garden service. The freedom of just opening the door and (without “dressing for the weather”) taking the slow walk through the front and then the back gardens. A tour of inspection at some moments; but more fundamentally a physical, sense-based reconciliation to fleshly existence. Sealed in the book of life once more! The gift of life (or lucky accident: choose your metaphor) in a beautiful world! It’s still here, and we’re still in it. What luck!... Yet somehow I just don’t have the urge to go out and experience all that for the simple reason that I’ll be – cold. Forty-nine degrees is not my friend. It works for others, but not for me. I want all outdoors to love me. I want to feel the sun, the heat, the light. I want those molecules jumping.
The other day, when some at least of those conditions were obtaining, I was out front performing one of my little late-season maintenance chores, re-staking the zinnia for the third or fourth time. We had had wind and rain, and the top heavy, heavily-flowered, thick-stalked annual had pitched to the side at a forty-five degree angle, hanging on its supports. The plant is about four feet tall. Its flowers are red and round and very large. The remarkable thing about the size is that it is our only zinnia, grown from seed, under this year’s innovation, the cold frame. Of course I did not set out to grow one zinnia. I must have transplanted about thirty seedlings. But the weather was terrible in June, rain or clouds every day, not enough sun; I watched them all weaken, develop holes in their little leaves, fade away like – spilt milk, words writ on water. Some seedlings do not prosper; it is the way of things. I took about a half dozen of the most likely survivors and transplanted them to the front, where the sun is steadiest and, after a couple of weeks, only one remained. I don’t know why. Did it consume all the usable nutrients, suck the life out from underneath the others? As in some sort of fable, all the other seedlings sicken and die, and one boffo bonanza oversized flower grows tall and colorful and eats sun like air.
So, as everything slowly fades, even the perennials that held their banners high through the late declining season, our one zinnia continues to add biomass and flowers, and weight (evidently), and strains against the bamboo poles I use to hold it up and wants to come crashing down like a redwood under the ax.
I grab a few more bamboo stakes, thrust them in the ground, tie a few more bonds around the branches to lever up the main stalk, the mast of my autumn schooner, and tie the knot.
As I’m engaged in this struggle, the neighbor from across the street – whose own yard is filled with marigolds and mums, pretty good fall flowers – calls out, “Give it up! It’s all over!”
This is meant as companionable banter, a kind of cheerfully cynical New England-knowing piece of advice. But all I can do is shake my head.
No. Never. Never give up.
I will keep trimming, deadheading, watering, and otherwise manipulating plant material to see what I can keep alive, what sort of show I can maintain, for as long as I can. I remember annuals blooming in December some years; flowers under the snow: pansies. I think I’ll go get some pansies.
As for the red zinnia, the new support system has held. It’s tall and straight and blazing. And now the sun has come out. What a beautiful world!