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.

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