October 31, 2013

A Gardener's Work Is Never Done

Yesterday morning I was awakened at 5:35 a.m. when our cat walked into our bedroom and let out a single, very loud ‘meow’.  The cat then went downstairs where it emitted multiple noises that sounded for all the world like a cement mixer missing one or more ball bearings.
Our cat is not normally so talkative, so we put on our robes and went downstairs to see what had upset our normally (except at mealtime) placid pet.  The answer was immediately obvious: outside our front door, two deer were sizing up our holly bushes as a breakfast entrĂ©e.
Welcome to the gardener’s world, where the end of summer and the growing season are just pencil marks on a continuum of chores that span the year.  I categorize those chore into four baskets:  things we don’t know we have to do until reality slaps us upside the head and tells us we better do them ‘now’; things we put off doing during the summer because it was too damned hot; things that you can’t hurry; and things that need to get done, and autumn just seems like the right time of year to do them.
You do not want to see these on
your doorstep.
For example, yesterday’s meowing cat begat an hour of spraying every evergreen in our garden with a nasty commercial concoction of putrefied eggs and garlic and a red-circled reminder on our calendar to repeat the process in six weeks.  That’s a prime example of a chore that kind of sneaks up on you.  Spraying is second nature while the garden is in its full flower.  It takes a couple of tick-bearing ruminants on your doorstep to drive home the reminder than deer repellent needs to be applied even after the tastiest morsels are history.
This rock border project was
saved for cooler weather.
The late autumn is also when projects that were put in abeyance because of the summer’s heat come home to roost.  We had a portion of our driveway repaved in July.  Now that the weather is cooler, we are re-installing a rock drainage border around the driveway.  It sounds like a simple task until you consider that the contractor performing the repaving work made no effort to preserve our earlier border.  As a result, new drainage channels must be created, shaped and filled with rocks that have sat in crates for several months.  Is it a gardening project?  Absolutely.  The drainage borders protect the gardens that surround the driveway from rainwater that would otherwise wash those gardens away.
Taking down the gardens in the autumn is a gradual process that requires respect of both nature and reality, and so stretches well beyond the end of Daylight Savings Time.  A large bed of daylilies was cut down in late September when the foliage yellowed.  Honeybees, however, still feasted on the asters that were interspersed among the daylilies. And so that part of the cleanup was put off.  Now that the asters have passed, I am going around dutifully completing that part of the project.
These grasses are in their glory
right now.  Why cut them down?
We also have tall grasses that come into their glory in October and November.  They wave in the breeze at the front of our property and are impervious to frost.  Cutting them down early would be senseless.  But the first snow of the season will leave them looking disheveled and forlorn. As soon as that first snow of the season has fallen and melted, those grasses will need to come down.
Finally, late autumn is also the time for those projects on the ‘long term’ list.  Several years ago, I insisted that a part of the back of our property be cultivated as ‘Seedeaters’ Heaven’, a stand of tall rudbeckia, hellenium and other plants that would provide a wealth of seeds for the avians that keep down the insect population of our garden. 
It was a great and noble idea in theory.  In practice, it never looked good and quickly became an overgrown mess filled with weeds and unwanted interlopers.  Now that the days are cool, my responsibility is to grub out the area so that it can be replanted more sensibly.
In undertaking these projects, we race against the calendar. Sometime in November or December, it will be too cold to work outside and the days will be too short to get work done.  When that happens, we throw in the towel and retreat indoors to contemplate seed catalogs for the 2014 season.

But not, of course, until I’ve split enough wood to get through the New Year.

October 28, 2013

The Party's Over

We’ve been living on borrowed time for the past month.  Daytime temperatures have risen as high as the sixties and low seventies while the all-important nighttime temperatures dropped into the thirties but fell below 35 only once or twice.  The result has been a best-of-both-worlds autumn: lots of color on the things that are supposed to change color (trees and shrubs), with an extended season of green for our annuals and temperature-sensitive perennials. 
The Japanese waxbells that were still
attractive just a few weeks ago...
Three nights ago, though, a cold front came through Boston and we awakened to temperatures in the low twenties.  In just six hours, the last vestige of the 2013 summer gardening season vanished.
... turned to brown stalks overnight.
The change was startling.  The Carolina Silverbell (Halesia tetraptera) behind our house dropped every one of its still-green leaves in the space of a few hours.  Our Japanese waxbells (Kirengeshoma palmata), though somewhat straggly in appearance because we’re down to ten hours of sunlight, were looking fine Thursday afternoon.  Friday morning, they were limp brown stalks.  Except for the most sheltered specimens, our hostas collapsed into yellow mush.  Overnight, the leaves on our hydrangeas turned limp and black.
The inner sidewalk bed on
Memorial Day...
Those few hours of a hard freeze greatly simplified our end-of-gardening-season clean-up strategy.  A week ago, I was cutting down perennials as they passed from green to yellow.  This past weekend, Betty and I clear-cut entire beds.  The only perennials that stand unscathed are the hellebores and heucheras (both winter-hardy), and a group of plants that are marked to be divided.
... and after it was cut down
over the weekend.
The vegetable garden is now just a small clutch of frost-tolerant root crops (turnips, carrots) and cold-indifferent specimens like chard and leeks.  The fence is gone, and we can only hope that the deer are occupied elsewhere.  The day before the hard frost, we were in the Berkshires and raced back in the later afternoon, picking two dozen gorgeous butternut squash just as the sun set.  Had those squash remained in the garden overnight, they would have been damaged.  Instead, they’re now in our basement, cleaned and ready to age into perfection and ready for use over the next several months.
There’s no rhyme or reason to the date of the first hard frost.  It has come as early as the middle of September and as late as early November.  Given a choice in the matter, I prefer the lingering autumn, with a gradual cooling that is finally punctuated by that freeze.  We have at least four months before we see the first crocus and snowdrops, and five months before winter gives up its hold on our corner of New England.  Knowing what lies ahead makes me appreciate this October respite all the more.

October 14, 2013

Twilight Time

In May, more than a hundred
varieties of annuals awaited containers.

Double-click on any image to see
the slideshow at full-screen size.
From the middle of May through the end of August they are the ambulatory roving ambassadors of the garden.  Our containers filled with mixed annuals line the driveway, get massed and un-massed depending upon what is in bloom, fill in holes in beds where perennials have passed, and bring bright splashes of color to our deck where only containers can thrive.
At the height of the season, a
grouping of more than a dozen
containers are massed
The containers are inexpensive, single-season experiments for plants trying out for a permanent place in the garden scheme.  This year we welcomed back coleus ‘Big Red Judy’ for a triumphant return while deciding that a lobelia Laguna Sky Blue bloomed and passed far too quickly to be put on the ‘repeat’ list.  We discovered Kangaroo Paw (anigozanthos) and it immediately earned a gold star for its bloom-till-it-hurts attitude while fragrant nemesia (nemesia aromatic) became a staple in half a dozen containers.
More than a hundred different cultivars of annuals went into the creation of roughly thirty large container gardens.  Another twenty containers have fixed specimens – a loropetalum, a cape plumbago, a crape myrtle and an acuba, for example – that we overwinter in the garage because the shrubs (some now seven or eight years old) are not hardy to zones 5 or 6.  Our water garden plants, too, are overwintered; trimmed severely and placed in a bank of basement windows where they will hang on for seven long months.
By the end of September, the
annuals are fairly well shot
But come the beginning of September, the annuals are spent.  They have spent the summer on steroids; continuing doses of plant food to force blooms and heavy trimming to encourage branching.  By the middle of September, the sun no longer climbs directly overhead and, after the autumnal equinox, daylight shrinks at an alarming rate.
In each of the past five or six years, a September frost has provided a final answer to the question of ‘when should we take apart the containers’.  This year, while temperatures dipped into the upper thirties several times and frost nipped at our vegetable garden, our containers emerged in the morning unscathed.
Ballast that made pots lighter
is removed and cleaned for
use next year
Today was the day we chose to bring the container season to a close.  In a several-hours-long marathon, I placed containers in a cart and brought them, assembly fine fashion, to our ‘potting’ area.  There, Betty ruthlessly yanked out entire plants or broke off tops.  Depending on the size of the pot, either she or I dumped the pot into one of our transplant beds where she methodically tore apart roots, salvaged ‘ballast’ material for reuse next year, and spread the spent potting mix over the bed’s base of topsoil, where I then dug the two planting mediums together.  By next spring, the bed will feature well-aerated soil enriched with peat and vermiculite.
Containers await cleaning
Tomorrow, we begin the second part of the process: cleaning the containers with a mild solution of bleach to ensure that no insects overwinter with the pots that will hibernate in the basement until next May. Those that are destined for the garage will be inspected for both tiny hitchhikers and insufficient room for root growth.  By the end of the week, only a handful of the 50+ containers that were in the garden at the peak of the season will remain on view.

This container will
stay in place for the winter
Two of those will be a pair of cast iron urns that, at present, contain a vigorous coleus ‘Alabama Sunrise’, perennial strawberry (with fruit), and a calibrochoa ‘Lemon Slice’ that has been in continuous bloom since the second week of May.  When that hard frost hits, the coleus and calibrochoa will be taken out and evergreens will take their place.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is.  But the time elapsed in taking down this part of the garden is a fraction of the weeks that are spent finding and assembling the right plants each year that make this a special part of our garden.