gardens

Look! See! Now!

There is a smoke bush (Cotinus species) near my workplace that is right now in fall glory.  All summer its leaves are an interesting green-flushed red, much lighter than the popular variety “Royal Purple.” This plant, whose variety I do not know, grows in full sun on a clay soil. I think it gets regular watering in summer from underground sprinklers. A few weeks ago, it began changing colour and has now attained a combination of reds, orange, orange-yellow and remnants of green that make it glow as if with an inner fire.

Smoke bush in glowing autumn colour

I have admired this shrub at this stage of colour the past three or four autumns, and I’m happy to have this picture, because visual perfection in plants is a fleeting phenomenon. This is one of the most important things I’ve learned as a gardener.

Gardens are part of the natural world, however manipulated by us, and are therefore ever-changing. Every week, every day, even, presents a new scene. Plants go from sprout to stalk to bud to bloom to seed to withering in a matter of months, and the gardener had better be paying attention, amid all the tasks of her busy life, or she will miss the point of the exercise altogether. An individual bloom, of a rose or peony, for example, lasts a week at most. A spike of delphiniums holds its perfection for maybe two weeks before individual florets start to get that “I’ve had enough” look. Fall displays of coloured foliage last for weeks, but inevitably a windstorm comes and it’s all over. I fully expect to find that smoke bush more or less bare when I go back to work next week.

But these things are cyclical; they recur. Every year plants grow, bloom and fade. Old gardeners know this, and look for their favourite sights every season, reassured to see the crocuses in spring (and fall), the daylilies’ bloom scapes in summer, the smoke bushes going through their colour changes in fall. The thing is to look and see everything there is to be seen, every time, because nothing lasts forever. The blue poppies are overwhelmed by competing tree roots or succumb to crown rot. The roses are defoliated by black spot and refuse to flower. The guy across the street decides he doesn’t want that smoke bush any more and cuts it down. All of these things are bad, but if you really paid attention and soaked up the colours and perfumes and textures when they were there, at least you have memories to draw upon.

This applies even more to the world beyond your garden gate, where you have no say in what happens. Pay attention. Really see that tree, that interesting rock, that nifty old house. Next week or next year they may be gone, and if you didn’t store up memories of them, you won’t even be able to remember that they were there. But if you go through the world with your eyes open, you will see all sorts of wonderful things.

Moss between stones

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Spring in Fall

Colchicums and Foliage

Most people think fall is about endings, but that’s not entirely true. The mini-season I think of as “fall-spring” has begun. It comes in September, after a few good rains and before any real cold weather. Like true spring, it’s a time of relief after a period of stress.

There are fall-blooming bulbs — autumn crocuses, colchicums (such as the ones in the photo) and nerines. Many perennials persist in blooming, especially if they have been deadheaded or cut back (good old Linaria, for example, and Lychnis coronaria whose bloom stalks were cut down by half in July). Others bloom for the first time in fall (asters and plumbago (Ceratostigmata plumbaginoides). Shrubs and vines whose main flush of bloom occurs in spring often rebloom a little now — rhododendrons, magnolias and Clematis armandii.

More subtle are the changes in foliage colours. I don’t mean the spectacular autumn colours of trees. Long before they begin to change, the foliage of certain perennials and shrubs shifts from summer green to shades that are almost magical. The smoke bush (Cotinus), both the purple and green-foliaged forms, develops intensely orange, yellow and purple spots on its leaves that transforms each one into a tiny work of art. Peonies, both herbaceous and tree varieties, acquire flushes of apricot and magenta that make them glow, especially near grey-leaved plants.

Peony, Achillea & Rosa glauca

The refreshment of rain and coolness, combined with the lower angle of light that comes with the changing season, bring about a transformation of the garden from its dry and dusty late summer state to a dying vitality, a final glory before the end of the main growing season. Maybe it’s because of my obsession with drought (actual, imminent or potential) in our Mediterranean climate here in climatically fortunate Victoria, B.C., but this is my favourite time of the gardening year. I have laid down the watering can and abandoned the hose. The struggle to grow a decent vegetable garden is over once again. I can wander the garden, enjoy the lingering blooms and plan for next year.

A book that celebrates this season is The Garden in Autumn by Allen Lacy. Drawing on his own experiences, he discusses fall-blooming perennials, bulbs, annuals, shrubs and ornamental grasses. I recommend it.