I heard something recently about the two words used for this time of year (in the northern hemisphere). It’s the only season with two words to describe it. “Fall” is most commonly used in North America and “autumn” in Britain.
“Fall” is a one-syllable word that does the job of indicating the time of year when a lot of leaves hit the ground. Okay, there’s the additonal implication of failure and downgoing, as in the Fall of the Roman Empire. But think of “fall fair”–prize vegetables, flowers, and livestock. Deep-fried things to eat. Bales of hay. Fiddle music. Fall is fine.
“Autumn” sounds poetic and nostalgic. It actually works better in written form, at least in North America. People from the Old World, with suitable accents, can get away with using it in conversation, but for most of us it sounds hoity-toity and uber-refined. And of course it has that silent “n,” which adds a certain mystique.
I generally say “fall,” but sometimes I write “autumn.”
However you describe it, October is THE month. It’s not really cold, days have not yet been cut brutally short by the return to Standard Time (for which the mnemonic is “Fall back”), and the leaves are in a state of glory before they (yes, sadly) fall.
I hope everyone is having a fabulous fall. Or an amazing autumn.
And a splendid spring to those in the southern hemisphere!
Tough plants often have common names that suggest they are weeds. Globe Thistle is no exception. Real thistles are prickly, deep-rooted weeds (although some are quite attractive). Globe Thistle (Echinops ritro) shares some of their qualities, but escapes true weediness.
This is a plant I can recommend without reservation to anyone with a dry garden. In moist soil it would grow weak and floppy and need staking. It prefers full sun but blooms well enough in my garden with only four hours of direct sun. Deer don’t eat it. Sometimes aphids appear on the developing flower buds, but can be washed off easily by spraying with water. The flowers look good for several weeks and may be dried if cut at their peak. To prevent uncontrolled self-seeding, it’s best to deadhead carefully before the flower heads shatter.
More information about Echinops ritro can be found here.
The flowers are indeed globe-shaped, about the size of golf balls, and a metallic blue in colour. I’ve seen them described as similar in appearance to the medieval mace, but in 2020, a different comparison is inevitable. A fellow blogger alerted me to it in the comments to this recent post.
Globe thistle mingles well with other plants in the garden, especially with grey-leaved, drought-tolerant ones such as Curry Plant (Helichrysum italicum). In the dry, warm days of late summer, the foliage starts to morph into shades of yellow and rusty brown, which is somehow appropriate.
Here are a couple of other plants that look good right now
The photos in this post were taken on August 21st and 29th, 2020.
Last January I noticed a couple of amaryllis plants on sale in an unlikely place–a building supplies store. They were well past their blooming time, which likely happened before or at Christmas. I bought one.
The label said it was called “Apple Blossom,” white with pink stripes.
On investigating, I found the cute little pot had no drainage hole, and instead of soil, the bulb was stuck into pure peat and nothing else. Clearly, the unfortunate bulb was intended to be a one-bloom-wonder decor item, to be pitched out when the show was over.
I repotted it into a good soil mix in a clay pot. I watered it and watched it grow long floppy leaves. In June, it went outside along with my other amaryllis, a bright scarlet specimen.
By the end of July, both plants were showing signs of approaching dormancy. Their leaves were turning yellow. I reduced watering and prepared to stash them in a cool basement spot for a couple of months’ rest.
“Apple Blossom” had other ideas. First I noticed a couple of new leaves sprouting, and then a bud. I resumed watering. Now it’s in bloom.
I’m glad I rescued “Apple Blossom.”
Chronological disclosure: I took the photos and wrote the post between August 15th and 20th. The plant has pretty much finished blooming by now.
It happens every August. I decide the garden is a mess, a failure and a burden. The season is drawing to a close, and has not lived up to expectations.
This garden looks best in spring and early summer. Given our climate and the Norway maples that shade the place and suck more than their share (so say I) of water and nutrients from the thin, sandy soil, the August decline is inevitable.
Add to that the fact that many plants have achieved their maximum size and leafiness by now, and many of them look weary. Windy days aren’t unusual here, pummeling the plants and making them lean. Many just stay that way, as though resigned, giving the garden an unkempt look. Yellowing leaves on perennials that have been there and done that add to the effect. The gardener, already tired from lugging watering cans and dragging hoses, says, “To Hell with it,” and goes inside to commune with the computer.
I noted at least three major pruning projects that will have to be done sooner rather than later. The magnolia is a hulking monster, despite annual attention with the pruning saw. The trellis is getting shaky. The pond has a bad case of duckweed. Too many plants, such as Russian sage and Japanese anemones, that are in glorious bloom in other (sunny) gardens, barely manage a meager handful of flowers here. Why bother?
The tomatoes are smaller than last year, both in size and number, because of cool weather in June and early July. The plants are showing signs of late blight, so it’s not likely they’ll produce many more tomatoes. Daylilies failed to bloom this year. Nine tenths of an old climbing rose died after being blasted by cold winds in March. My latest (and maybe last) attempt to grow blue poppies has failed. Why bother?
Plants don’t say “Why bother?” They just get on with it.
August-itis is a disease of the gardener, not the garden. Despite failures of individual plants, the garden itself is just fine, going through its annual process. This is the way it’s supposed to look in August, and in fact it looks better this year than it has in Augusts past. There have not been a lot of faded green leaves falling.
When I allow the ideal of green perfection to interfere with my expectations, I regard that normality as a failure. Looking at other gardens, especially the ones perfectly manicured by hired gardeners and watered by elaborate irrigation systems, only intensifies that feeling.
There’s only one cure for August-itis. The gardener must engage with the garden and do something that improves its appearance, even a little. Something straightforward and not too difficult. Clip that lawn edge. Do some deadheading. Cut down the wilted stalks.
After that depressing tour in the glare of noon that concluded with, “To Hell with it,” I took another look at the place late in the day, when the magical light of near-sunset transforms everything. I did a bit of deadheading and a little raking. I noticed buds forming on the Chinese witch hazel. They will bloom in January. I saw a new frond unfurling on a struggling little fern. I topped up the pond and scooped out much of the duckweed.
I noted plants that are looking good.
I’m on good terms with the garden again. For now, I’ve recovered from August-itis.
We are in high summer now, if you reckon by the meteorological calendar, in which the summer months are June, July, and August.
July is lily month in this garden. Spring and early summer bloomers are fading off and tiredness is creeping into the scene. But the trumpet lily “Golden Splendor” adds a flourish of drama, as well as an incredible scent. It drifts through the window as I write.
This lily is one quality plant I’ve manage to grow successfully, despite dry, rooty soil. It declined for several years, but has recovered due to my efforts in removing some of the invading tree roots, adding compost and fertilizer, and paying attention to watering.
This summer has been relatively cool, with slightly more rain than usual. The lilies have responded with extra buds. Again, I’ve taken the precaution of draping light plastic netting over them to deter munching deer. We have a small herd of does (one or two with fawns) and at least three bucks that cruise around the neighbourhood.
I’m still learning what plants they like, although their preferences change from year to year. Last summer the bronze fennel was eaten to the bone. This year, fennel is ignored, but the flowers of Crocosmia “Lucifer” were nibbled. I hastened to apply deer repeller (smelly stuff made of eggs, garlic, and wintergreen). It works, but it’s best to apply it before the damage is done.
Sunny and warm is the forecast for the next week. Perfect July weather as garden and gardener move through the season.
I recently rediscovered a book I have no memory of buying. As you can see from the price stickers in the photo, it was a bargain. Especially considering what a fun read it’s been.
Christopher Lloyd was an eminent British gardener (“horticulturist, ” as he called himself) and writer on gardening. This book is a collection of his essays first published in Country Life between 1964 and 1993. They are arranged by month, a practice that makes sense considering that gardening is an activity governed by the seasons.
Reading the thoughts of this longtime expert gardener who was also a good writer was an informative delight. I must have read this book whenever it was I bought it, but I somehow forgot doing so. That made this re-reading a fresh experience.
Gardening was both passion and profession for Lloyd. He was opinionated, but spoke from knowledge and experience. His garden at Great Dixter was open to the public, which led to opinions about the habits of garden visitors. And on the habits of plants, from trees to tiny alpines. Dogs in the garden. Thefts of plants and cuttings, including confessions of long-ago heists perpetrated by Mr. Lloyd and his mother and fellow gardeners. His thoughts on the sound of certain words — “cultivar” (ugly) or “inflorescence” (delightful). The virtues of rough grass, which made me think I’m on to something with my Boulevard Project. The death of a plant as an opportunity for something new to be added. The essays cover a dizzying variety of garden-related topics, from plant propagation to cooking.
Great Dixter Garden is now managed by a charitable trust as a biodiversity and educational centre and is open to visitors. Its official website may be found here.
As well as enjoying Mr. Lloyd’s thoughts on gardening, I’ve been bustling about in my own patch, so thought it was okay to borrow his book’s title for this post. Deadheading continues, as well as staking, snipping, weeding, lugging watering cans, and fretting about when to activate the soaker hoses and sprinklers.
I can’t really complain about the weather so far this season. We haven’t had unseasonable cold or heat, and there was adequate rainfall from April through June. Today (June 27th), as I write this, however, we have dull clouds and a blustery wind, but without rain. My least favourite kind of weather, since the wind batters plants and tugs on them and dries out the soil. And it’s unpleasant to be in the garden with flying debris whizzing by as branches clash and clank overhead. (Okay, I’m complaining after all, but whining about the weather is a gardener’s prerogative.)
Update: today (June 28th) has been a complete contrast — sunny and clear with a little breeze. And we had a few millimetres of rain overnight; not enough to make much difference, but it was nice to hear its patter on the leaves. Summer rain here is a blessing.
Since this is a Garden post, a few photos are obligatory. About the middle of June I ran around trying to get decent close-ups of flowers. Being a lazy photographer, I didn’t work too hard at it, and my camera isn’t intended for macro work. These are the best of a dubious lot.
My patch of garden is not comparable to the size, sophistication, and magnificence of the one at Great Dixter, but all gardens and gardeners have something in common.
Before May of 2020 fades into memory, here are a few memorable images from my garden, along with a thought or two.
As a new gardener, I read a lot of books and articles about garden design that suggested using plants as an artist uses pigments to create stunning colour combinations. In fact, I recall the term “plant palette” being tossed around. After years of striving to do this in reality, I’ve decided it’s not a realistic goal, outside of “great gardens” with staffs and resources. For the small gardener, failure and fits (apoplectic and otherwise) are guaranteed. Plants aren’t pigments. They won’t all bloom at the intended times. A key component of the design will die or rampage through the planting. Something else will creep in and introduce a clashing colour. But delightful conjunctions do happen. My best combinations are happy accidents, not carefully selected groupings. The thing is to see and appreciate them when they happen.
The header image shows a happy combination of Siberian irises (finally blooming well here), with orange poppies (Papaver rupifragum) and the white flowers of Libertia grandiflora in the background. I planted the Libertia a couple of years ago. It didn’t bloom last summer, so I was beginning to think the conditions here didn’t suit it (it’s a New Zealand native), but it’s performing beautifully this year.
While “painting” with flower colours is a dubious proposition, it is possible to create effects of contrasting and harmonizing forms and colours with foliage. Leaves, after all, are present throughout the growing season, whereas flowers are fleeting whims.
The garden and environs are home to a number of wild creatures. Birds are the most numerous. I’ve come to recognize quite a few different ones since I began hanging up feeders in 2015. A couple of days ago, I saw a family of red-breasted nuthatches near the pond, and the following morning there was a family of Bewick’s wrens in the lilac bush. Sadly, I think one of the nuthatches is no more; today I found clusters of small grey feathers that match one of that species’ colours. I have seen Cooper’s hawks here from time to time, and I know they prey on small birds. So do crows, for that matter; I’ve noticed one visiting the bird bath recently.
May really is this garden’s best month. June also, if there’s enough rain. By July, grass starts to brown off and the spring bloomers get that tired look. Of course, there are the drought-tolerant stalwarts, the “tough plants” I’ve mentioned in quite a few posts. And the gardener (that’s me) racing around frantically with watering cans and hoses, ministering to plants that aren’t so tough.
Looking down is looked down upon, isn’t it? Happy, healthy people are supposed to stand tall and look toward the horizon. “Looking up” is a way of saying things are improving. A “downer” is a disappointment.
But gardeners, even the most optimistic ones, are almost always looking down.
If I ever become incapable of bending over, my gardening days will be over. Except in specially designed gardens for the disabled, it’s impossible to garden in an upright position or while seated.
Sometimes I’m appalled by how much of my time in the garden is spent in a bent-over position. I’ve even wondered if it’s harmful. (I suspect it makes face wrinkles worse. Gravity, you know.) On the other hand, I don’t have any back problems. Maybe I’ve naturally used the correct technique for bending over, called the “hip-hinge.”
Planting things, weeding, deadheading, connecting hoses, and just peering at plants to see how they’re doing — all those garden tasks require one to bend over. Never mind picking up tools and gathering weeds, clippings, etc. for disposal, which require any number of additional bend-overs.
For some garden jobs, such as manual edge trimming or intensive weeding in one spot, I get down onto one or both knees. A kneeling pad helps, as does switching positions every now and then.
Thinking about this, I realized that both kneeling and bending at the waist are positions associated with humility and showing respect. What could be more appropriate for us gardeners than to bend our knees and our bodies, and turn our faces toward the Earth?
These thoughts reminded me of words by Henry Beston, nature writer and gardener:
“Touch the earth, love the earth, honour the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills, and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places. For the gifts of life are the earth’s and they are given to all, and they are the songs of birds at daybreak, Orion and the Bear, and dawn seen over ocean from the beach.” (From The Outermost House: a year of life on the great beach of Cape Cod.)
As a gardener and creature of Earth, I am honoured to bend my back and knees to her. The rewards are rich and wonderful.