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.
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.
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.
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.
…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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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- Is fall lasting longer in your garden this year? If so, are you doing anything more, or anything differently, compared to “normal” years?
- 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?
- 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?
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