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.