Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Desperate Beauty of Fall

The nights are getting chillier. The sun is setting earlier and in an entirely different spot over Little Traverse Bay. In the garden, the Stargazers and rich wine-colored lilies are a defiant blaze of color against the larger and larger patches of deadheaded green.

For some gardeners, the adjustment to Fall is a sad and wistful time. I have always seen a fierce and desperate beauty in that turning season.

Those late bloomers of every species are finally coming into their own. Lush mounds of mums lift their buds to the sun, preparing to burst into glorious flower. Simple "prairie" asters, relatively low on the pecking order of perennial garden plants, lift their feathery purple and hot pink heads long after most of the garden is settling in for the long winter ahead.

This, too, is a season where the "volunteers" come into their own, misfit daisies or astilbe or Canterbury bells that just weeks ago would have been considered "out of place". Liberated by the latest deadheading, they burst into bloom amid that sea of barren green. Monarda, popularly known as bee balm, continue to hang on, appreciated late in the game for their tenacity.

For much of the summer, the gardener has cut back the emerging blooms on the hostas, encouraging the plants to send all their energy to producing those lush and beautiful leaves. Now the tall and wiry stalks are allowed to stand, lovely bursts of lilac in the midst of all that glorious green, white and cream foliage.

Creative deadheading allows the heads on the Annabelle hydrangeas a couple of precious weeks of bloom. By careful clipping around the edges or hand-maneuvering of those ponderous clumps of blooms, it is possible to eliminate the dried, brown and bloomed-out patches. The transitional fall garden may not display the abundance of the beds at their peak. Still, there is a beauty in simplicity and the sight of individual plants defying the shortened daylight hours to bloom even as the hint of frost threatens to put an end to it all.

How different from Spring, I find myself thinking, where all is hope and promise and struggle, but with the awareness of a prolific summer of blooming to come. In Fall, the garden cannot escape the reality that the long, hard Winter is not far behind. And yet, it blooms.

The Fall garden can teach us a great deal about our own growing seasons. Fall in the garden is the best argument I know for hope. Those plants are short on excuses and long on determination—the desperate faith that it is never to late to bloom and grow. Tough stuff, life and time in a garden, but beautiful for all that.

Risk, Hope and Grace in Gardening

“Sing a song of harvest home”, the traditional Thanksgiving hymn urges us. Safely squirreled away in the freezer, the fruits of a summer of vegetable gardening reward us with memories of work productively done. Now is the time for family and friendships and a well-deserved fallow time as our garden rests for the season.
Precious memories for dark and difficult days, as well as the coming winter. In my novel, TIME IN A GARDEN, the heroine and gardener, Eve, writes a great deal about gardening and growing older, about life beautifully lived. “Words like ‘risk’ and ‘hope’ and ‘grace’ do not pop up a lot in horticultural magazines,” she says, “ That is odd, because you cannot survive long in the gardening business without them.”
I don’t think anyone would argue that hope is commodity we all badly need these days. “As a culture,” Eve writes in her diary, “we tend to want immediate gratification. Gardens do not operate that way. Gardening works. . .only when we learn to plant by a calendar in which months and years and even generations become the measure of what has been accomplished.”
Shortcuts and greed-is-good ethics don’t work particularly well in the garden. If we get lazy and plant the bulbs too shallow, they freeze or rot. If we skimp on fertilizer or don’t keep an eye on the nitrogen content of the soil, the harvest is skimpy or we wind up with great foliage and no veggies. In the end, all the alpha-dog hubris in the world cannot substitute for honest and careful stewardship. We reap what we sow.
Yet, for all our short-sightedness, our gardens also remind us that it is never too late to begin again.“Gardening opens the possibility of second chances,” Eve writes. “Our failures are only final if we give up or if we refuse to learn from our experiences. The saga of a gardener is the story of hope.”
“Gardening is both life-affirming and humbling. It teaches us to have faith in new life to come and to hold on through the darker days. It grounds us—literally and figuratively—in what really matters as the seasons play out around us.”
Perhaps the greatest gifts we can share with our families this holiday season are not bought with mega-bucks, but with a loving investment of common sense, the kind of life-lessons that only gardening can give. Seeds packets are not as cheap as they were when many of us were growing up. Still, the dividends they pay may be absolutely priceless.

Rhythm of Gardening and Life

Some gardeners find Fall a sad time, others a time of badly needed rest after the exhausting season of work behind them. The Fall cutting back and raking is done. The dried and yellowing foliage is gone, hauled off to the mulch pit.
What remains can be a sad reminder of times glorious blooming past. Instead, I like to think of the autumn of a garden’s life as a precious opportunity to take stock, literally and figuratively, of what needs to be done to encourage new growth once the long, hard winter is past.
For starters, even after the annual garden cleanup, in Fall the plant structure is still there, pruned back but still very identifiable. It becomes easier for a gardener to see the crowding for what it was, plan objectively to deal with the excesses that can quickly turn the garden into a jungle next year.
In the young Spring garden, it can be more difficult to distinguish what goes and what stays or delude ones’ self that those plants aren’t going to be elbowing one another for space in just a matter of weeks. I usually feel so relieved my plants have survived the harsh winter, that I am reluctant to get out the spade and do what needs to be done and tame that first wild rush of new growth, until it becomes a back-breaking business.
The Fall garden is beyond such well-meaning but misplaced sentimentality. I can see at a glance where the iris are impinging on the astilbe, where the border plants are getting out of hand. Walking my Fall garden provides a sense of distance, the precious wisdom to see where work needs to be done if my garden is to continue to grow and flourish next season.
Even though the leaf mold wreaks havoc with my allergies, I love that fallow time as I fix in my mind’s eye one last time how beautiful it all was. The garden and the plants have done their work all summer. I have done mine. Even the winter to come cannot change that reality, the wonderful memories of what was accomplished.
Maybe some of these thoughts have contributed to making gardening the number one hobby in the U.S. In the seasonal rhythm of the garden’s life, the gardener can gain deep insights into the changes and wrenches of their own.
As creatures we are meant to grow and bloom. There is no ‘retirement’ from that cycle, from the flowering and losses that define our years and days. A good gardener learns from experience. A good gardener understands the discipline of pruning and weeding, of setting boundaries for themselves, their gardens and those plants. Gardening is about life and vice versa. Good stuff, all of it.

Gardening as Therapy

Willard Scott on the Today show recently featured a couple, married happily for seventy-five years. The secret of their longevity? Never fight, but when it gets a bit tense on the home front, the husband goes out and gardens. They have the biggest garden on the block.

I laughed but gardening as therapy make an awful lot of sense. I tell friends that, for me, the grittier tasks like weeding and deadheading have all the satisfaction of cleaning the bathroom but none of the drawbacks. A guy is outside in the fresh air. It is obvious that something tangible has been accomplished. Life doesn’t get any better.

Gardeners love to talk about the “deeper meaning” of their favorite past-time. Google just about any topic and there are web sites devoted to quotes about what getting out there in the dirt does to the human psyche. For starters, note the language—gardening “grounds” us.

That annual Fall garden clean-up, a very tough and potentially nasty chore? Poetically among gardeners, the process is known as “putting the garden to bed”. I can’t imagine a kinder, gentler way of describing that bittersweet moment when we realize it’s time to call it quits for the season, get out shears and clippers and getting rid of the greenery that if left behind, can rot the garden at its root. The tough task behind us, visions of “long winter naps” and the promise of Spring’s “awakening” are not far behind.

Then there’s my personal favorite job and expression, “deadheading”. Wow. It took some imagination to come up with whimsical term for the lowly but important task of snipping away the bloomed-out and unsightly. Deadheading speaks of life-changing transitions, not blisters and broken finger nails. Deadheading is not about death or loss but about revitalization.
According to the “Ask Oxford” online dictionary, the word ‘garden’ itself stems from 14th century Northern French gardin, a variation of Old French jardin (still used in modern French). Its roots may be even older in the early Germanic languages.
The word ‘yard’, though, is one of the oldest words in the English language, in use since 300 AD. The Oxford online search says its origin is the Germanic word geard ‘building, home, region’ which also has ties to ‘gardens’ and ‘orchards’. A whole family of words related to ‘enclosures’ and secure spaces have similar endings, including city names as far away as the Russian Novgorod and Petrograd.
I like that whole notion. Even with all those shears and other sharp objects lying around, even fighting deer and numerous flying and creeping predators, gardens in word can be wonderful places of safety and shelter for gardeners and plants alike.

Blooming Where We are Planted

The growing season is late this year, two to three weeks by some estimates. How hard and frustrating it was, all through early July, to watch the daisies struggle out there in the garden, wondering if they would ever bloom. Even the annuals in the planter boxes were having a tough time of it and are only now beginning to show signs of hitting their stride.
Still, plants seem to have this tenacious need to bloom. They are born to flower no matter what is happening around them.
With the tiniest of incentives—a little more sun and less rain, though hardly typical hot and sultry summer days the plants might have been expecting—the garden suddenly explodes in a riot of color. Before our astonished eyes, the peak flowering season compresses into just a few wildly intense weeks. Species that normally don’t bloom together like daisies, astilbes and oriental lilies burst into bloom at the same time. The garden becomes wall-to-wall color, shades and textures, a single glorious living carpet.
Life can be like that. Just when we think we have it all figured out, that we’re stuck in a rut, feel disconnected from everything and everyone around us, something happens to shock us back into life, what we were meant to be. Though there is still a damp chill to the air, out of the blue, in a burst of glorious energy we find ourselves blooming where we are planted with renewed excitement and joy.
True, the “getting there” may be stressful as all get out. Like those poor perennials, waiting for a summer that seems to never come, it can be tough just to stand upright or get out of bed in the morning. Out in our garden, we get up after weeding too long and sciatica kicks in with a vengeance, a painful wake-up call that the Spring of our lives is many a decade behind us.
And then a friend calls or a buddy passes along via email a great story or video clip off the Web. We forget the heating pad, worries about out 401Ks and the fluctuating price of gas and think about blooming, like our gardens, all those plants desperately flowering together before the season ends.
Rationally, we know that for everything there may be a season. But oh what fun it can be when life surprises us and that Gardener’s almanac proves less than accurate. In the garden, for all the work and planning and fertilizing and fretting, the wonder and awe remain—the outrageous and unexpected capacity, against all odds, to become what we are intended to be.