Oh sure the purple asters are a pretty big hint that the autumnal equinox is upon and already crept passed me, but, heck, I've still got a half of a flat of snapdragons I started from seed last February, that I've been babying along just because I hadn't been able to find the exact, perfect spot for them. It seems, the advent of Fall has decided their fate. Next stop: compost pile.
Seriously, where did all the anxiety of getting plants in the ground, staking newly re-sprouting perennials, loading them into my wheelbarrow for yet another new location....where did it go and how did I get here to Fall so quickly? Is the speed of season change anything to do with increased gravitational pull of the sun, global warming, more bovine methane releases or....am I just getting older? Well, the inconceivability of slamming into the sun, the intolerability of slogging through melting ice caps 5 miles inland off the Jersey Shore , the unpleasantness of passing out Gax-X at alarming rates to dairy farmers... are all possible default reasons for the quickened passage of time. However, sticking yet another candle into an (albeit decadent) chocolate buttercream-iced birthday cake (thus ushering in another year closer to 'old fartdom' ) is the least acceptable reason to my vain old self. Sadly, no explanation, either logical, illogical or one based in self denial, has a thing to do with the seasonal-slippery slope a gardener inevitably must careen down as the sun bathes our gardens at ever-lowering altitudes - casting longer and longer shadows - each day.
The appearance of that first, single, yellowed oak leaf is Mother Nature's reminder to let the air slowly seep from my garden balloon for another season. I may be a bit reluctant to chill out just yet, but my perennials quite willingly anticipate a much needed nap under a soon-to-be chilled earth. Even though many of them have already tucked themselves under blankets of mulch, this gardener isn't quite ready to pull up the covers and call it quits. As long as there's one last lingering monarch; a few remaining hummingbirds; the shockingly bright yellow male goldfinches haven't totally muddied to the dull chartreuse of their female counterparts, and my garden is still alive with colorful perennials that have only just come into their own with the appearance of that first, yellowed oak leaf...then this gardener still has miles to go (and beds to tend) before I sleep.
For me, fall is neither an end nor a beginning but a transition. The weather is so quixotic - waxing and waning from cool to hot and dry to wet – if I wasn’t looking at a calendar, I might be hard pressed to tell whether summer was coming or going. But because I know it so well, in spite of the weather, my garden is more in a state of limbo. That ‘garden limbo’ affords an easier transition for nearly all of my plants. If the containers and baskets of annuals still look decent enough and don’t require hauling water from my rainbarrel or dragging the hose to nether regions of the garden, then they’ll be allowed a temporary reprieve from becoming compost fodder. I have the same approach to annuals planted in the garden. Except most of them don’t wind up worm food till next spring. After I’ve collected from them whatever seeds I want to save for next season, I leave them, along with untrimmed or un-deadheaded perennials, as food and shelter for the birds and to better anchor the soil. (Mulch helps too.)
Fall, like spring, are probably the two of the biggest reasons why I love perennials so much. In the Spring (aside from bulbs) they are the first, reliable – and with little or no help from me – signs of life and color. While in the Fall, they ‘keep the music playing’ so to speak right through that transition period. If you learn which perennials actually don’t even begin to perform until that ‘back and forth temperature dance’ is upon us, you can have color in the garden right on through a first snow. Just a few of the perennials still adorning my garden right now are the shorter Michaelmas or New England asters (like the ones pictured above) or my 'perennially' favorite tall aster, White Boltonia Asteroides, this year backed by taller-than-usual brilliant orange annual Tithonia. (Pictured Left).
It's worth the wait for the lovely contrast of white fluffy heads on the chocolate eupatoreum (Joe-Pye Weed) alongside late-blooming pink phlox. (Pictured below).
There's also my much-coveted ornamental grasses like this pinkish-hued, plumed miscanthus next to a "Fireworks" solidago which, as you can see, lives up to its common name and right behind that is a "Pink Delight" buddleia. (Pictured Below) I humbly - yet with a smidge of conceit - admit I have so many buddleias, I actually lost count.
Also, too, are the sedums, the late arriving morning glories and moonflowers, red clusters from pinnapple sages, a second flush of penstemons, a literal hedge of starry white-flowered, sweet autumn clematis which wafts its vanilla scent through my open kitchen window in the evening. Finally, all my favorite three-season shrubs and sub shrubs, constantly morphing throughout the season from lime green to burgundy, dark green, variegated or silver and finally the burnt orange, red and maroon foliage, ultimately forming a frame for some last-minute huge chrysanthemums. Although I love those big, fat globes of button-flowers, I've always considered chrysanthemums merely expensive annuals and being the ever-frugal gardener, I'm reluctant to buy more than a couple. But, my husband absolutely adores them. They 'scream' Fall to him and since that is his favorite season, who am I to deny finding an excuse to peruse another nursery where I might just happen upon some final perennial sales before poinsettias take charge of their display areas and their gates are shut till next March.
I am a perennial-a-holic and admit it proudly. I like growing vegetables. I really like growing annuals. But I love growing perennials. Even in frosty months to come, ice crystals on those ornamental grass heads and snow-dusted sedum clumps will be just as beautiful as that first brilliant gold-coin yellow of my wood poppy or the azure blue catmint heralding the arrival of spring and rebirth in the garden.
And when the snow-dusted sedums have browned beyond recognition and the grasses have bent and bowed under that ice and snow, there remains a magical reassurance that brings a smile to this gardener’s face when I bundle up in winter gear and stand in what I assume is one of my pathways then covered with snow and gaze out over that frozen blanket in the dead of winter. I know that beneath that frosty mantle lies sleeping roots of potential beauty just waiting. Waiting for me to love them all over again. Actually, I love them just as much when they’re sleeping, which is perhaps another reason why I love perennials as I do. Not just because of their inherent promise to return each year. But if, by some fluke of quirky Mother Nature, they shouldn’t return, I can at least hold onto that promise through the cold winter and sometimes …in some years…that Promise alone is just enough to keep me going until that wood poppy finally appears again.