Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Autumn Chores


Almost immediately I saw it – a peregrine falcon – perched on the tangled branches of my giant viburnum bush. The muted, mottled coloring of its back made it almost invisible amid the gray limbs and fading leaves. While its back was toward me, however, his head turned sot that his black, unblinking eyes were also boring straight into me. I saw those eyes and the dangerous hook of a beak meant for ripping into meat rather than slurping worms. Its still, gray body was on alert, so I froze to keep it from flying off. Its long, yellow talons wrapped around the branch, balancing a large body made to soar instead of sit. When the bird grew comfortable with this interloper and twisted its head forward again, I used that opportunity to back up quietly and enter the house to grab my camera. Realizing I was neither food nor enemy, it continued examining me as closely as I examined it and let me take half a dozen quick shots before it flew off in search of dinner.

Oftentimes we don’t have to travel someplace grand or distant to encounter the mysterious and unexpected. My garden constantly puzzles me. I admit, I am not a disciplined gardener. In fact, this year aside from folding in some nutrients before shoving a few tomato plants in the ground, I did practically nothing. With preparations for France consuming my spring, I didn’t have much time to prune, mulch, plant, rake, weed or do anything to prepare it to thrive and expand this season. Yet it continued to grow without me. However, without my management, it certainly showed that it had developed a mind of its own.

My “dwarf” hydrangea is now more than twice as big as I had ever expected it to be. Because the tag on the small bush had definitely said “dwarf,” I placed it near the front edge of my bed so that now it smothers all other worthwhile flora around it. This week, however, its large floral heads of the bush are turning from a mossy chartreuse to a ripe cranberry color, and soon the leaves will follow. It embraces the coming cold. Somewhere around here I had planted a striking black salvia. I don’t recall seeing it this summer. Did I accidentally pull it as a weed last fall because the marker had disappeared, or was it overtaken by my hydrangea? And what is the name of that feathery plant that a neighbor had given me from his garden? I had planted it so that its delicate white flowers could add interest woven among blank spots in my boxwood bed. They are now almost as tall as my butterfly bush and will probably have to be ripped out next year so that they don’t interfere with the symmetry of the space they were intended to simply accent.

I lose a lot of plants because I’m so pathetic at adequately identifying them by any permanent mechanism. I buy a gross of markers, with all the best intentions to organize my garden as I plant, but it seems to fall by the wayside every year. Are those serrated, fuzzy leaves over there some kind of hellabore, a new kind of dandelion, or something I don’t remember buying? But the markers can also be totally useless. This year my phlox migrated on their own. None exist where I originally had planted them, but one is growing up through the azalea bush. One phlox plant has made a home where the yarrow, which has surrendered this year to the overgrown Russian sage, was supposed to grow. Another phlox slid down the rock stairs into the daisy patch. But that’s ok because for some reason the daisies didn’t bloom this year. Each summer it’s a mystery what will come up where.

I love my garden and I love the surprises and bounty it can give me. I did nothing to the tomatoes this year but plant them and leave the country. Yet here in the middle of October the ripe, red fruit keeps coming. One year I had some extra gladioli bulbs left. I stuck them against the fence because it was the only place where the ground had not yet frozen since, as usual, I was behind schedule. I thought they were annuals, but their peach loveliness waves in the summer breezes every year. Last year a neighbor gave me a dozen clumps of sweet woodruff to try as ground cover. Those few clumps are now spreading and flourishing with more vigor than I have a right to expect. A columbine I didn’t plant sprang up in the overgrowth surrounding our trash cans in the alley.

Change comes to my garden whether I want it or not. But I can also direct its renovation if I just start early enough in the season. The world recognizes my efforts from time to time. As I’m bent over toiling at the weeds, neighbors and strangers stop to smell the sweet scent of my viburnum in the spring or to ask the name of the giant white anemones standing guard at the front of my house. My garden brightens the days of those passing through. And it seems to meet with the approval of peregrine falcons taking a rest before continuing their hunt.

As I rake, and weed, and try to plant barely one step ahead of the winter chill, I also have to admit that I’m in the autumn of my years and need some tending. I feel the season changing down to my roots. But I embrace the energy of autumn. Until the first snows come, autumn is marked by a riot of color and crisp air. Instead of fading into that season of death, it’s time to prune, and rake, and fertilize, and plant in my own life. I want to anticipate spring’s energy ahead rather than the cold of winter creeping up behind me. Maybe I’ll have another hawk in my future. I’m sure my life will present more than enough dandelions and invasive wild violets that resist extraction, rooting deep in my habits and requiring special tools to rip them from where they’ve anchored. If I work hard enough my own garden, though, maybe I’ll also be rewarded with the mystery of flowers I don’t remember planting poking their heads above the weeds.

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