Last weekend was the long Labor Day Weekend, when the calendar makes note of the end of the summer season. As is a tradition here in the District of Columbia, the remnants of a Gulf Coast hurricane (in this case, Isaac) barreled through late Saturday night to mark the occasion. Mind you, I was involved in a mutually-drunken phone conversation with my favorite sister-in-law, Dollie, during most of the storm. We gossiped about my brothers, our nieces, my other sisters-in-law, and everyone in between. Meanwhile, Isaac blew and rained and generally wreaked havoc.
He blew nearly as much hot air as Dollie and I did.
That damn Isaac was certainly no Southern gentleman. Like a bull in the buttercups, he left my garden tattered, positively downtrodden. Still, I was not unprepared for his wrath. This is an annual event. The day after, as I inspected the coleus which just twelve hours earlier had been three-foot-tall colorful flags unfurled in the breeze, but that morning were damp rags pounded to the ground where it appeared they would remain, I was reminded that this weekend is always the weekend when I begin thinking about shutting up shop on this year’s garden.
Like every aspect of my existence, and every transition phase in my life, it is with mixed but powerful emotions that I confront this change. Queen Gardener is, indeed, a fickle one, a reality that has caused me much grief in many situations.
The saying goes that for every door that closes, another opens. My problem is, I am never certain upon which door to focus my attention. While the Former Mr. Perfect and I were disentangling, and the Current Mr. Perfect and I were beginning the entwining process, I was at an utter and complete loss as to which door to take. Rather than moving toward one or the other, I stood for far too long between them, stranded and paralyzed. I was unable to make a choice.
This indecision is a theme that has repeated in various capacities throughout my life. I am always the one who stays too long in a miserable job because of my fear of jumping from the frying pan into the fire – not an ungrounded fear, as I have done exactly that on a few of the occasions when I mustered up the fortitude to actively participant in my own life’s major decisions. Fortunately, this has been quite infrequent as I have truly enjoyed a mostly random life, moving through it as the currents directed me. Even more fortunately, those serendipitous tides have seldom steered me wrong. They have, in fact, been very kind to me and conversely, some of the absolute worst outcomes of my life were the result of decisions which I have finally, painfully, proactively made.
I am known for focusing on the wrong door when I do, eventually, choose a door. I bang my stubborn forehead repeatedly against the door that has closed, and turn a blind eye to the one that has opened, sometimes missing it completely. I have very little positive experience with these cursed doors.
What, pray tell, does that say about me?
As to lying to rest my summer garden, it is with both a sense of sadness and a sigh of relief that I prepare for the task. I very clearly see the door closing, but I am ready for the long winter’s nap. And already I sense next year’s door opening. Overall, it is with a feeling of suspense that I approach this transition.
Here are gardening words to live by: breathe deeply and move forward. Appreciate the past, the closed door, for what it has provided. Anticipate the future, the open door, for its burgeoning potential. One door closes, another door opens.
I’ve had a very successful summer of gardening. I’ve minimized my losses and optimized the beauty of my daily life. I’ve enjoyed goods produced by my own hands, organic nourishment derived from no more than dirt and careful tending. But now this period draws to an end; this door closes.
The potted peach tree already looks tired, as if she is long overdue for her snow-capped sleep. And indeed she deserves it! In this, only her second year of production, root-bound and all, she managed to provide me with thirty beautiful, furred balls of nectar. Soon I must repot her, but not until she has lost her leaves and gone dormant, as otherwise I risk messing up her natural cycle. I will also avoid pruning her in this season, as already beneath her tattered leaves I see that next year’s fruit buds have developed . . . a new door opening.
Some gardening resources advocate pruning trees and shrubs in the fall; others proclaim that spring is the only time to undertake this necessary and frightening task. There is, indeed, much vociferous discord about when to prune blooming trees and shrubs. After trial and error, here’s my general rule of thumb on the subject: if the plant in question blooms after June 30, it is safe to prune in the fall. If it blooms prior to that date, it should be pruned only immediately after it has bloomed; otherwise you will simply be removing the bloom wood for the next year.
Roses, however, should always be pruned in the spring, as there is invariably some winter kill, often as much as half of the cane. Prune in the fall and one is often still forced to prune again by half in the spring. Best to just leave them be and see what remains come spring, and then take it from there.
One door closes. Soon enough the nights will begin to chill and the morning dew will incrementally get heavier, presaging the morning we will awaken to a hard frost, the whole of everything covered in brilliant white ice. That will be the end of whatever is left of the annuals: the zinnias, vincas, petunias and begonias, which have steadily been decreasing in volume of late, as steadily as I have been deadheading the spent portions. They will bow out, and will need to be clipped off at ground level and disposed of (oh, but were a compost bin available to me). Their demise will be without grief, though: who would want it any other way? It is the order of the world and all things in it: birth, life, death.
The coleus, too, will be no more after the first freeze. That frost will slam that door closed. Long before then, though, I will have snipped their bedraggled remains – thank you, Isaac, you blow-hard bastard – and arranged them in colorful vases to line the window in my office. There, like a botanical rainbow, they will root. Mid-winter, I will pot them up in some pretty containers where they will finish out the hard season. They will brighten my every work day until spring, when I move them back out to the garden.
A door opens, life is reborn.
The frost will spell the end of the basil, too. Or would, had I not had the foresight to hack it back to main stems just this past week as both the plants and I knew the end was nearing. They had stopped their profuse production of leaves and had even stopped struggling to bloom. As is, I now have a freezer full of basil pesto which will, over the winter, warm me almost as much as my summer garden has.
The hardier herbs, the perennials like the mint, oregano, thyme, and rosemary, also recognize that summer is ending. Their new growth is compacted and condensed, closer to ground or stem which means less exposure to the elements this winter. They are no one’s fools.
The parsley, which has also begun to produce a more condensed and rigid leaf stem, is right now in this transition season busily storing up sugars and starches in the form of swelling parsnips, which, as a biennial (growing in a two-year cycle) they would utilize next spring to fuel their flower and seed production . . . if I didn’t have plans for parsnip soup later this fall. A door opens.
Growing up on a sustenance farm in Wyoming, the line between the door closing and the door opening was blurred. There, the cycle of life, of opening and closing, was continuous and ever-present. Vegetable, animal, human: we all moved with a natural flow from season to season.
Putting the farm to rest come fall was no easy task, but the process also ensured that life didn’t meet its end when the cold moved in from Canada. We worked hard every day of this transition period. As we worked, the Southward-migrating geese flew overhead in a “V” pattern, sometimes so close that we could hear the wind rustle through their pinion feathers – a heart-quickening sound.
There, beneath the crisp blue autumn sky and the honking geese, we plucked every unripe tomato, pepper and eggplant left on the vine. We then sandwiched them between layers of newspaper and stored them in a house-adjacent lean-to shed, where they continued to ripen in the barely above-freezing temperature well onto Christmas. Apples and pears and plums were stored likewise. Potatoes and fennel, carrots and turnips, and even the last remains of beets and radishes had to be dug out and stored in wooden baskets in the same lean-to. Beans were dried, okra and peas canned, cucumbers pickled, corn shelled. Alfalfa was cut and dried and baled and stacked, oats were harvested and bagged and stored at the ready to carry the livestock through winter.
Corrals and chicken coops were cleaned out before the freeze, the valuable manure stacked on a dry, rocky hillside to cure for a few seasons before it was returned to the earth, its nutrients put to good use.
For many people, the approach of autumn means nothing more than pretty leaves and the chance to wear a new season’s fashion. For the gardener, fall is a reminder that doors close and doors open, that everything is apt to change and that life is both cyclic and permanent.
I would have it no other way.