The Garden in Every Sense and Season

by  Tovah Martin

Taken from The Garden in Every Sense and Season© Copyright 2018 by Tovah Martin, photographs by Kindra Clineff. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Grape Nuts

You suspected autumn was in the air. Maybe you even feared fall’s inevitable arrival. But you didn’t come to grips with the change of season until you were walking—maybe where the woods meets the edge of a field, or somewhere on a dirt road—and a slight breeze brought the hint of wild grapes wafting to your nose. Wild grapes announce that fall is inevitable. I can’t think of a more seductive way to wrap up the growing season. Grapes are a good argument for embracing fall and all its many blessings.

In autumn, wild grapes are steeped in the other scents of the season.

Wild grapes ease you into autumn. Something about that fresh scent is so fully satisfying, it goes beyond the Bacchus-laden baggage that grapes have acquired and adds a personal identity to the interchange. That heady, high-pitched, sticky-sweet, maybe even slightly sour bouquet floating lightly on the air whispers that wild grapes have laced through the undergrowth and are producing the spoils of their crop. I’m always amazed that the birds haven’t pecked them into oblivion and black bears haven’t stolen their fill long before I catch wind of the bounty. There is invariably an opportunity to follow my nose to some wild grapes. It’s a little like a treasure hunt.

Beyond declaring the official denouement of the growing season, wild grapes remind us to leave it be. Gardening is grand, but not gardening is just as critical to the balance of nature as cultivated areas. We are all proud of nice and tidy. But we need to set aside no-man’s-land as well. Maybe the terrain where grapes have snuck in is not the place you fuss over and nurture with the fanatical servitude that you bestow on your garden, but it’s a valid ecosystem nonetheless. It sends out its scents, sustains a whole slew of critters, provides provisions for innumerable insects, and generally keeps the balance in check. As a gardener, you have the duty to support that land.

Folks have a love-hate relationship with wild grapes. They can wreak havoc with the trees that they use to get a leg up, stealing their sunbeams and adding weight. After timbering, their seeds can sit in the soil for years, waiting for the right moment to germinate. Foresters aren’t overly fond of a fruit that they see as a menace to their arboreal crop. But I greet wild grapes as part of the overall sensual experience. They’re here, they’re hard to dissuade (cutting back the vines just leads to later sprouting), and they provide provisions for the throng of creation beyond our sphere of control. To keep it all happening, we need the sort of spaces that grapes frequent. Some places should remain beyond our domain. By all means, walk by those areas and remain cognizant of their gifts. Breathe in and feast your eyes, but resist the urge to impact them. Some blessings are best left alone.

Keeping the Garden Humming

Birds are not the only squadrons happening in autumn. Watching the final work crews laboring like the dickens to bring in the last harvest can get me all misty. No, I’m not speaking of the last swipe of the lawnmowers. I’m referring to a much more subtle hum. There’s something so touching about those diligent little bees, butterflies, flies, humming- birds, and other working-class insects doing their last sorties of the season. They buzz around tirelessly milking the pre-frost nectar production for all it’s worth, sometimes staging their final binge in preparation for migration, sometimes readying for a long winter’s slumber. The least I can do is serve up the fodder.

I can certainly see why some gardens fizzle out in fall. After all, it’s not a time of year when nurseries are heavily stocked with inventory luring you to make purchases. From the marketing point of view, fall is pretty much a forgotten season. Nurseries are winding down and putting inventory on sale, and beyond some mums and flowering cabbage, garden centers usually let the stock run down to nil. The typical retail nursery isn’t bulking up on plants that perform in autumn. For ideas on what to grow for the late show, we’re pretty much on our own. Not only are we left to our own devices, but acquiring likely candidates is also challenging in autumn. You would do well to plan ahead and buy autumn-performing plants in spring or early summer when garden centers are well stocked (or willing to special order), and plant them long before autumn arrives. Not only will acquisition be easier, but the plants will also stand a better chance of surviving through the winter.

Given that nurseries tend to leave you stranded, I suggest going on garden tours (the Garden Conservancy Open Days Program is a wonderful resource for this endeavor) and jotting notes about what you find growing in gardens that feature an autumn-flowering crescendo. Purchase and plant the following spring, because many autumn bloomers prefer to be situated for many months prior to their fall display.

The meadow beside the goat pasture is billowing with goodies for pollinators in autumn.

Then listen up, because autumn can be just as loud as any season—if not noisier. The bumblebees are especially diligent, but the frenzy from all pollinators hits a higher pitch. In my garden, all sorts of pollinators go bananas over the sedums and asters, and the garden is heavily stocked with those late-season performers specifically for the insects. Every type of sedum is installed, and I watch appreciatively as bees romance the flowers from bud stage onward. The gravelly, sun-baked lawn-alternative garden hosts the showy blue-flowering asters such as Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ and ‘October Skies’. Further afield, in the meadow, species asters romp, bolstered with S. lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’ and other little nuggets that are hard to prune into shape. But sedums and asters are only part of the smorgasbord. The garden is studded with perennial agastaches, Asclepias tuberosa, heleniums, rudbeckias, echinaceas, cimicifuga, and phlox to keep the work crews humming. Buddlejas are a big part of the buffet, but I keep them scrupulously deadheaded to prevent seed set—a development that can lead to invasiveness issues.

Meanwhile, the meadow sounds like a factory in high production mode. This is really the meadow’s moment in the sun, and it’s been gathering girth and gearing toward autumn all year. My meadow is heavy on goldenrod, asters, milkweed, phlox, pycnanthemum, Monarda fistulosa, and Joe Pye weed—all of which thrill pollinators. I’ve encouraged the milkweed with monarchs in mind, letting it seed around the perimeter. On purpose, the meadow does not receive its annual shearing until the moment before snow is scheduled, just in case any seeds are still floating around. Basically, the goldenrod can be a bully, so I maintain diversity by inserting other players and encouraging them to self-seed.

In addition to the perennials in the garden and window boxes, late-season annuals provide a fountain of nectar for the little buzzers. I stuffed some Celosia argentea ‘Intenz’ into the window boxes as a stopgap measure after the hellebores had finally given up their season-long surge. The pollinators flocked. Even the hummingbirds paid a call. At one point a horde of sparrows noisily descended, giving Einstein an eyeful from his inside-the-window viewing station. Farther afield, the zinnias, tithonia, dahlias, marigolds, and Verbena bonariensis surrounding the vegetable beds bring up the drone of busy bugs purring away. The annuals actually started as a salute to my sense of sight, but my ears also caught wind of the benefits. And isn’t that how this is supposed to work? Where one sense is served, other stimuli follow.

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