Thursday, September 30, 2010

Autumn Mums

Mums the word/haiku

Autumn mums the word
Lips of color set to part
Psalmists to the sky

It’s fall, so I buy some hardy autumn flowering mums. Who hasn’t? I get one rather large one, which fills a spot near the front steps where previous annuals have failed to prosper, and three much smaller ones. When I line the short ones up on the porch steps, their size seems just right. They look like happy little dots at the end of parallel clauses.
But a strange warm, wet wind hasn’t got the word and keeps blowing them off the porch steps. Today my short squat potted mums look like little boys who keep getting knocked over on the playground.
Eventually I give up and move them up to the top of the porch where the wind can’t get at them, the blowhard still manages to knock them off their feet. Eventually I line them up close behind a low wooden-box planter, as if seeking protection from the big kid.
New stuff. Shorter days. The season’s September song. Once again the end days of months are liminal moments this year, and this month has gone out with two unseasonably warm days. More outdoor time for summer’s lovers.
It wasn’t the weather, or at least not the recent weather, but autumn’s bloomers have brightened up the place considerably. The back garden’s perennial mums have started to open, the first big white flower heads on my overgrown Montauk daisy opened earlier this week, and now the toad lilies – probably the last of the fall perennials – have offered up their intricate, oddly spotted flowers, bringing new life to “quiet’ corners.
I helped things along by a planting a few more of next year’s perennials now, two discounted members of family called “pink guara,” which I have just learned is a native of Texas, spreads widely, has spikes 2 to 4 feet high, and delicate dancing pink blooms. I am almost ready to hire an orchestra.
I wasn’t aware of the Texas connection when I bought them, but the shop owner did advise me to “mulch” them over winter. Since I mulch everything, I take this to mean mulch especially well. I will buy little fur coats made of squirrel hair and organic leavings and button them up tight.
It’s an odd thought that plants which did well in spring and pooped out completely in the summer, are willing to take a chance at flowering again now. We have second rounds of roses, a few blue clematis climbing the front porch, a range of fuzzy pink spirea clusters, a few small foxgloves, and one perky pink pincushion flower.
Petunias, as I have learned other years, come back and bloom now if you manage to keep them alive through the heat.
Some annuals take all summer to get good, and some others I acquired late in the season when we needed an infusion of late-season color and the specimens looked like they were strong enough to survive a late-season transplant are adding color. In some cases they didn’t survive the transplant.
And asters. You don’t think about planting them in the spring. When they are doing nothing but green, and some produce tall leggy spikes regardless of pruning, you think you must have enough of them. But when they start showing deep purple in September (or, this year, in August), you wish you had planted more.
Flowers tend to get planted in their flowering time by short-sighted gardeners like me.
But instant gratification has its claims as well – just ones, I would say. After all, it’s always now.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What Happened to the Sunflowers

What happens to a very tall sunflower when you bite its head off? It grows lots of little new ones.
A couple of sunflowers planted themselves in the vegetable garden this year. They looked good there, so I left them, and one in particular grew very tall and picturesque with classic yellow-petaled, sun-like seed heads. The squirrel first tried climbing up the smaller of the two, perhaps to get at the seeds in its fat round flower-head – do squirrels even know about sunflower seeds? (I’m not a follower of rodents.) I found its big fat seed head detached and lying on the ground after the deed.
Next time I saw the crime take place, from indoors. The squirrel climbs the taller sunflower stalk, then appears to fall off when the stalk finally collapses under his weight. I knew at that moment the flower head was minced meat. Later in the day when I looked at the damage, the fat, round flower head was nowhere in sight. He may have dragged it off to one of his favorite chewing sites, like the arm of one our chairs, and minced it into plant mush there. The decapitated stalk was still standing, though now clearly missing something.
Though they looked like a crime scene, I left the bare flower stalks in the garden as a memorial to sunflower ground zero. A few weeks later I saw a curious round bulb forming on the smaller of the two stalks, and a while after that was surprised to see it morph into a classic round – but very small – sunflower.
A little later, the tall stalk began forming not one, but about eight new bright-yellow, little round sunflowers at various points in its upper story. Their little yellow petals catch the sun. Will they make new seeds that ripen before winter? I don’t know, and suspect it’s beside the point.
How much smarter are plants than people. Somebody bides their head off and they just go to plan B. Instead of one big one sitting-duck head, a bunch of little ones.
The sunflower’s strategy is mirrored of course by other plants. After I pick the first big broccoli seedhead (the part you eat) off the main stem, the plant diversifies. New slender stems, new small offerings of edible broccoli. With luck, the plant keeps producing these through November. Crop your petunia’s first bloom-bearing stems – so they tell you – two-thirds the way back down the stem for a thicker, better, more flowerful plant. (Personally, I can never bear to do this.)
When people get their heads bitten off, on the other hand, we go straight to re-thinking the meaning of life and brooding. Which may not be the best state of mind in which to ask the big questions. A better approach to thinking about the meaning of life would probably be some disciplined approach such as meditation, religious practice, keeping a journal, or holding a focused philosophical conversation with a friend.
A better approach to getting your head bit off might be to spread your energy in a half dozen useful ways – whatever needs doing, really; there’s always something – and store up some seeds while you’re at it for the long, cold winter.
You probably had too big a head, anyway.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

September Planting

I go for the low-hanging fruit. A space by the fence needs a shrub: I’ve been planning it for a year. I take myself off to the big box store when it’s season left-over sale time and find a forsythia for some starkly low price. While I’m at it I see what else is for sale, and find two blue-flowering Plumbago for the price of one; and an attractive late-summer plant with tall purplish stalks called a Culver’s Root. These are plants I have known only from books. I end up leaving with the four perennials, two bags of dried manure and one heavy number of granulated lime for about the price of a decent forsythia. This sale business only encourages me. There’s hardly anybody else in the garden section. They must think the season’s over.
After a doldrums period, my plants – or my spirits – have picked up. The bicolored “garden phlox” – a medium tall perennial with light pink blossoms that keep on coming – has far outshone my earlier predictions and forms a center for a late-summer, early-fall flower focus. Beside it is a much lower daisy of the mum family, different from my other standard “garden mums” in its pale wild, scattered-looking leafs and its small pink flowers, which bloomed half-baked in August but are now coming in fully formed. It looks like the kind of plant you’d see in a rare sunny spot on a woodland path (if the deer didn’t eat them first). Between them the last of the bright red lobelia blossoms are hanging on. The color is extended by a late season floxglove, with a low stalk bearing white and pink trumpet-shaped flowers.
Gratified, I decide to work on this area, finding a place first for the Culver’s Root, in a spot where I cleared some ground a month before for some mistimed annuals. Out come the annuals, I dig a root ball hole, tossing out old roots – violet and queen anne’s lace among them – and settle in the new player. I liberate another spot next to the lobelia from the standard mix of overgrown ground cover, thick viney carpet cover and violets mostly, with some strands of vinca (but not enough to carry the space), and plant the two Plumbago side by side, adding a note of blue to the largely pastel ensemble.
Our two rose of Sharon bushes keep pushing out a few blossoms each, four on the pink plant today (I’ll stop predicting the end is near); and the violet anemone in full formation now is being joined by the first orange blossoms of one of those regulation garden mums.
That’s enough to keep me going for now.

Artemisa: Gray Symbol

Artemisia gray
That aged silver flower
Reminds me of care

I like it when it grows tiny marbles at its fingertips. And clumps together silver-gray on silver-gray.
It’s a background plant. The blossoms, even when they finally come, in September, never really open. You can’t say what color they are. Since they don’t open, they are the same color as the rest of the plant. A silver gray so thick and uniform you think you can scrape it off with your thumbnail.
They stand up (at least at the start). They last all summer. They spread. They fall over in the wind, they collapse, they lie on the ground until you gather them up and tie them around a stake. When you’re just about ready to give up on them, you see the upward ends of the stems have produced a texture. Is this what these guys call flowering?
But they make a statement. They get fuzzy and take up space. They gentle the eye.
They stand out by a kind of uniformity, a plainness. They are the garden’s backup singers. They stand behind, between, the dark pink roses. They whisper, making the brighter colors speak up.
We think about them when other voices go quiet. They endure, making small claims on our attention. They won’t go away, unless we make them. Why would we ever do that?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September Breezes

Every new page of the calendar puts us through changes, but September’s winds of change blow especially hard. The weather turns cool in the evening. I’m closing windows. No more sitting by an open window to catch a delicious breeze after a hot day; listening for the wind in the trees, for the hot, tense voice of summer crickets. Looking for different clothes in the morning: Where have I put my socks? Long pants; long sleeves. Slippers, instead of barefoot. What provisions have I left in my closet for the day I knew would come? It’s come, and I don’t feel like rummaging around in the upstairs for my cold weather clothes yet. Instead of slipping out of bed to step outdoors to feel the sun on my skin and see if the morning glory is blooming, I drag myself out of bed to close a window.
September is a psychological transition. Old changes tug at us. The once familiar start of a new year of school, the bitter-sweet end of summer vacation. The culmination of the harvest season. These old stirrings wake within us.
This year August concluded with a heat wave, which climaxed on the first two days of September with the hottest weather since the week of July 4th. So as the last month of summer (and first month of autumn) begins, I’m back to my hot season routine of watering first thing every morning and wondering why I bought late season annuals to plant in the sunny vulnerable places (the answer: a crying need for more color). Not only do our annuals, potted and groundlings, need constant water, one hot, dry day is all it takes for some of our sensitive perennials to wilt; so I am taking out the sprinkler too to make the artificial showers for back garden plantings I’m tired of watering by hand.
We’re promised a hurricane to douse the heat wave, but Earl fizzles like a country fiddler with too much to drink and no sense of direction. The mists and sprinkles of diminished, hungover Earl give way to a run of clear, dry, sunny days, perfect late summer weather for the Labor Day weekend – that official, game-changing end-of-summer holiday. One last party, and then the party’s over – that’s the societal message.
In the garden it’s time for an end-of-season reckoning too. If I’m going to make any changes this year, now’s the time. If I want to transplant, clear some space, try something pack in some new, showy high-colored perennials – without of course any assurance whether they’ll be happy where I’m putting them – this is the last chance at good planting weather. I put this case to myself, but I can’t gear up for a big push.
I’m caught in the changes. The days grow shorter. Midday is hot when the sun is high, but cools quickly when the sun gets close to setting. Tomato plants are climaxing, but I learn I have to my tomatoes in as soon as they show red, so the veggie-sampling squirrel, this year’s new young demon, doesn’t have a chance to sample them. Teeth marks on the pumpkins; spoiled tomato scattered on the Adirondack chair. One morning I look out the window and see a squirrel climbing up the taller sunflower plant which has made it this far with multiple yellow heads. Disaster! The weight of the squirrel’s effort snaps the stalk up around neck level and whatever happens after that to the seedheads doesn’t leave a trace of evidence behind.
I look away from the carnage. This, too, I think, shall pass. I am in an odd senescent state, my energies fading away with the final blossoms on the summer bloomers. The tall phloxes are quitting too soon. The Rose of Sharon bushes, which started too early, keep up a strange tattoo of one or two new blossoms every few days. The roses out front have revived with a second course of happy pink flowers after taking most of August off, but the morning glory seems to have given up long before its allotted span.
Even the honey bees are slowing down, some falling asleep (or collapsing) on the blossoms, having lugged themselves to a final beckoning bloom and lacking the strength, apparently, to set their course for a new destination. Is there a new destination?
The bees and I have long had a common interest: flowers. But it appears to be time for us to part company. Whatever may be next for nature’s humdingers, I’m being told by September breezes to move on.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

9.5 Garden Party

First we move the furniture around.
I decide to use some potted cosmos to cover bare spots in the back garden, clearing more space on the patio for chairs. I will not move the potted Mandeville rose off the patio, because that is the one plant that absolutely belongs there, with its tropical red flowers and thick green vines climbing up a trellis. Anne cleans up the barbeque grill and breaks out some more of the all-purpose plastic chairs. She pushes the metal picnic table against the house to use as a sideboard. She makes a crop of weeds pushing their way up through the cracks between the patio blocks go away.
I busy myself giving the garden foliage a company trim, brush, and shampoo. I cut off the tops of a lot of spent flower stems. I pull out a lot of volunteers. I sweep up pieces of fallen, broken acorns. I get close to the green mats of low steppable groundcovers, each colony in its own frame, more or less, some significantly less. Maybe because it’s September now, and cool this weekend, they seem revived and healthy and victorious in the battle over the persistent intruders which would break up their formations and obscure their uniformity. I cut off a lot of faded black-eyed susans. I trim some tall phlox, which are also, sadly, in their in the sunset of their pink florescence.
Even the purple loosestrife have declared an end of bloom-time, and we are now awaiting the garden mums and purple asters, tall and leggy as they are, and the Montauk daisies, ditto, to make a brilliant appearance. Of the designated fall bloomers, only the anemone – deep reddish-lavender buttons – have unveiled themselves with surprising promptitude. Other years they are the last of this group.
The guests arrive, the party begins, and various plant lovers take little walks around our curving brick paths. This gives me the opportunity to remember what everything is called – the dense, grassy northern sea oats, the pink Chablis sedum (typically an August bloomer, but looking good now), the cat mint (a little second growth), ditto for the spirea (tall and thick and rust-reddish on its dusk blooms, which no one notices), the long-gone red bee balm (monarda), the last pincushion blossoms (looking like tasty purple candies), the yellowish faded achillea (yarrow) standing up beside baby-blue balloon flowers…
“Do you have an herb garden?”
I walk her over: the spears of garlic-chive have pretty little white flowers, the oregano has tiny white flowers, the parsley is dark green, and the rosemary is decent, but I forget to point out the mint to anyone, though it is growing wild everywhere
In the end it is not about the garden. All sorts of people are perfectly happy to crowd together on the patio in our plastic chairs and some of our neighbor’s, and sample each other’s dishes and figure out who all lives in which house. Darkness falls, the twilight is beautiful and then swiftly gone. A crisp brilliant afternoon yields a cool evening, and we have no more light to see by, and no artificial light to shine on the public square when it’s time to break up and many guests volunteer to carry our countless odds and ends back to the kitchen. But people have brought their own light, their own better angels, and make of our dark hour their own pluralistic, peaceable kingdom.
Well, who knows, we can’t see them in the dark any more, but maybe the plants had something to do with it.