Falling Behind

Every year before this one, fall has come like a kind of reprieve. All those tasks still undone turn moot. Weeds keel over and expire of their own accord. Way too late to plant more veggies; sigh of relief there. The rodent marauders have done pretty much all the visible damage they can manage, and I happily leave the overweening hosta to them.

But not this year.

Mixed signals

My memory tells me that by late September, we’re supposed to have had our first frost. Yes, I know memory could play trickster. But I think the plants, too, were all expecting the frost, and don’t quite know what to do with the extra time this year. They seem like the householder halfway out the door getting ready to lock up, suddenly realizing that the lights and the iron and the TV are still on, and the washing machine has somehow stuck between the wash and rinse cycles.

Muted colors this fall

Halfway out. Some of the hardwoods finally gave up on waiting for frost and decided to strut their fall colors regardless. The trees that wear yellow in autumn have decked themselves out spectacularly. Driving back-country roads on sunny days during the past week has felt like a slide through tunnels of incandescent butter.

The red and orange crowd, though, haven’t kept pace.

My poor old ailing granny sugar maple ordinarily ramps up from tangerine to cherry red in late September. This year she started dropping her leaves in October without the formality of fall colors at all, unless you count brown.

tiny bright red crabapples (looking like berries) on a dark gray-brown branch; indistinct green background

Crabapples, on the other hand, are putting on a gala fruit display this year!

The veggies have shown confusion, too. The late peas and beans continued producing into last week, but well before that the pods seemed resigned to losing their race against the shriveling, from ground on up, of their parent plants. Except for the snow pea plants, which apparently thought all along that their job was to grow as high as possible and skip the pods. Topping six feet, and a grand total of six pods.

They’re improvising…

…different responses to what they must all sense: the shrinking days. They just can’t figure out what to do when daylight and temperatures fail to correlate as usual. So they wing it.

four tiny red lettuce seedlings spaced to grow in a dark gray-brown bed; at the top of the photo, the edge of a chicken wire crop coop slghtly obscures a couple more lettuce seedlings and a few leaves of a small chard plant.

Can you spot the lettuce? (Hint: it’s red)

Me too. About 10 days ago I planted ten lettuce seedlings, just to see what happens, if we don’t get frost till November—not such a bizarre supposition, judging by our ten-day forecast. (Thus far, approximately nada has happened in the lettuce patch.)

So this year it’s a different kind of reprieve: extra time to do things that I’d ordinarily have given up on. I’m still not sure I want that kind of reprieve. I’d like to be able to look out the window and say to myself, Wait till April. After six straight months of nonstop gardening, haven’t I earned a rest?

Apparently not.

Mind you, I know full well that I bring this on myself. It was not my evil twin who decided it was a good idea to order all those pollinator-pleasing native-flower seeds. Those call for cold stratification in pots, outdoors in a screen-protected frame, which I have to build before the snow is under rather than on top of it.

Why did I opt not only to plant garlic again, but to add shallots to the mix as well? Both require late-fall planting.

section of garden plot showing just-planted elderberry sapling and a smaller shrub; in background an assortment of buckets in green, red, and lavender, and a large bag of topsoil on grass which extends into the background

One mission accomplished

And somebody—maybe that was my evil twin—ordered not only a stripling elderberry bush-to-be, but also an aronia. For several days both sat on my deck, waving importunately at me. There was space for the elderberry, so I finally got it into its home last week.

I looked up the aronia. It grows to 12 by 12 feet!

That had to be the evil twin’s doing.

Seeking the cure

Meanwhile, I’m feeling a bit like that ailing maple tree, wanting to drop it all without going through the standard steps. I make gardening schedules but don’t stick to them. Try to cram too much into an afternoon, and end up getting none of it done.

This has me wondering whether there’s a climate-change psychodiagnosis to match the Covid-19 pandemic one. You know, the discovery that many of us haven’t been exactly depressed or anxious or manic or catatonic for the past 19 months, but languishing.

How many of us manage to languish with grace and panache?
Languish” by mengzi13 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For climate change, when the weather gets weirdly out of sync with the seasons, I propose a diagnosis of wilt. Or maybe wilt-not, as in do the weather what it wilt, I wilt not do what I ought.

Is there an antidote for the wilt-nots? Thus far, I’ve found only one. It consists in tricking myself. In mid-afternoon (which seems to arrive around lunchtime these days), I put on the gardening boots just to take a tiny stroll outside. Once I get out there, the garden does its magic.


Chaotic and disorderly magic, perhaps. I go outside with no fixed purpose. Picking the last three beans can segué into transplanting those lettuce seedlings, which can incite some harvesting of lemongrass or sage, followed by weeding the clover out of the lowbush blueberry patch.

That trick got me out to put that elderberry into its new digs last week, just before heading out of town for a two-day break in my regimen of procrastination.

Maybe this week I’ll manage to trick myself into ripping out the useless landscaping cloth (hosting a bumper crop of weeds), in order to relocate the Japanese forest grass hakonechloa. And that will naturally transition to spreading a lot of the mulch that’s encumbered the driveway for two months.

Oops. Three months.

Michelle Obama, in olive green and on the right, and an unidentified child in blue jacket and dark watch cap on the left; both kneeling in front of a wood-edged garden bed with M.O. demonstrating planting a lettuce seedling; indistinct background with mostly bare trees and bushes and a partly sunny blue sky; yellowish green tinge of a bush in the background suggests early spring.

White House Kitchen Garden Planting (NHQ201604050007)” by NASA HQ PHOTO 
licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With luck I can keep busy enough to stop fretting about when I’ll be able to get a Moderna booster for my J&J vaccine. Or whether we’ll see yet another pandemic spike in the winter.  And when or even whether the global supply chain will mend itself. With even more luck, Mitch McConnell will take to poring over seed catalogs (let’s all send him one!) and realize he has a lot in common with Michelle Obama.

That’s the lovely thing about gardens. Hope springs eternal, if you just get down and dirty.

Your turn:

If you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for the “newsletter” if you want notices of future posts. And whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment appears after their posts.) I try to reply to every comment, but feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. Is fall lasting longer in your garden this year? If so, are you doing anything more, or anything differently, compared to “normal” years?
  2. If you’re one of the many millions who turned to or intensified your gardening during the pandemic, do you think you’ll keep at it when (I won’t say if) the plague has receded? How do you think you’ll adjust your efforts once the outside world’s distractions aren’t life-threatening?
  3. What topics would you like to see me tackle while we’re hunkered down for winter in the coming months?

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For extra fun: can you identify the fruits pictured below?

Mystery fruit A

Mystery fruit B

Mystery fruit C

Give it a try; you can put your answer/s into a reply below. You can look for the answers (along with photo credits) in the next blog post. If you want to provide a link to a source for your answer, you can do so, but you should know that in order to prevent spamming by nasties, the blog is set up to allow only one link per reply.

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6 Responses to Falling Behind

  1. Susan Mckenna says:

    Kateri—You know I’m behind In unpacking boxes, By what I’d like to know is what else are you behind on besides the gardening?

  2. Corky White says:

    Having taken your advice – to let the garden winter itself over – no trimming, no pulling of dead stuff, letting the pollinators harbor in the sludge/leaves/debris, so then what do I do with my accumulated energy to DO something to nature, enculture it with work? Give my need to be outdoors and away from classes and the computer some MEANING? After I’ve taken the walk, I mean. Here’s one question: do I denude the deck planters or let them naturally go the way of all mint/thyme/shiso? Plant bulbs, yes. Don’t tell me to grade papers.

    • Kateri says:

      Wellllll, if you’re really at loose ends, I know a few people out here who would love an extra pair of hands in the garden!

      You can do whatever you feel like doing with the plants in the deck planters. Chances are, none of them are important habitat for over-wintering pollinators. But if your herbs and greens got mature enough to flower, they may self-seed, and you could have another year of production (without need to use more seed) just by adding a little bit of compost or fertilizer to the planters in spring. I’ve had especially good luck with thyme that way.

  3. Teresa says:

    A= mangosteen
    B ???
    C lycee

  4. Lynn says:

    I only recognize C–Kousa Dogwood–I have one sitting in my backyard!

  5. helen snively says:

    Mystery fruits: Dunno A. B might be a pawpaw. C is definitely a kousa dogwood fruit.

    Gotta love this stuff!

Comments are closed.