“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
I’ve always loved this quote by Albert Camus for the richness of the colorful vision it conjures in my soul — even though what he was writing about was allegorical, referring to the autumn of life (which may be more apt than I care to think about), the glorious color of the leaves showing new aspects of old ways and portals to adventures that come with aging and wisdom of life experience.
I know fall has truly arrived when the air smells of maples, wood fires and sweet, dusty musk of fallen, trampled leaves; storm windows go on the back screened porch; it is still dark and chill at 7 a.m.; coffee with Irish Crème replaces my morning iced tea; and I’m making chili instead of guacamole for lunch.
There is suddenly color all around in spite of dry withered leaves that will be just brown and down, as the saying goes, on some of our favorite trees. Maples are dressed for the season, hickories are brilliant yellow, oaks are scarlet, tawny brown and burnt orange. We won’t see the usual rich golds and crimson of our Japanese maples flashing through the woods, nor orange of sassafras. Even the ruby of dogwood leaves seems dulled from four rainless months.
We still haven’t had rain; thundering this past weekend was just a lot of noise and more empty promises. Hoses can’t be put away yet. Freeze or not, the garden needs to go into winter hydrated to protect roots of shrubs and trees as well as perennials.
One last deep watering in late fall, if we don’t get a significant amount of moisture, might make the difference whether they survive this winter. We can’t count on rain or snow in spite of all the ”spoons” lately found in persimmon seeds that in folklore predict a snowy winter.
An impending freeze as winter popped in for a brief reminder of what’s coming (I should get used to it; it’s the new normal for October in the lower Midwest, just as mums begin to bloom) stirred me into reluctant action. Back porch and greenhouse are stuffed, with only one forgotten plant.
Our big rosemary waited out the couple of cold days on the back porch. It can’t spend winter in there; it gets too warm and rosemary isn’t a houseplant. All its needles will fall off in protest and make a huge mess (ask me how I know).
I’ll have to do some rearranging in the greenhouse to make room among plants grown from toddler to teenage size in one summer so they will be comfortable, though crowded, as roommates. All were well watered as they went in, but any future watering will have to be accomplished by waving my watering wand as far as I can reach from the door with hopes I get them all and they live until spring.
Potted impatiens too pretty to let go for only two days of freezing temperatures were temporarily cheek to cheek (or pot to pot) with begonias and queen of the night cacti in the porch until winter’s visit ended and they could go out again. Outdoors, those blooming mums were tucked under blankets in hopes of protecting them from the predicted 20 degrees. Autumn isn’t down for the count yet, and I’m not ready to concede.
My living room now has a shade tree. I couldn’t bring myself to prune our biggest brugmansia while it has (I counted) 20 fat flower buds. That’s more than all summer. My fingers are crossed they don’t fall off in the warm indoor air.
Fortunately, it spread out horizontally instead of taller this summer, so it isn’t smashed against the ceiling, though I feel as if I should be wearing a jungle safari hat to sit in my recliner.
We won’t do much garden cleanup. It’s not only unnecessary in the long run, but it’s also environmentally irresponsible to keep our garden as neat as we would our living room. We don’t live outside in winter, nature does.
Not raking leaves, besides providing habitats for hibernating caterpillars, butterflies, lizards, toads and every other overwintering garden inhabitant, helps keep ground moisture from evaporating. It protects and insulates trees and plants, keeping roots warm in winter.
Leaving plant stalks standing until spring is crucial, even if it looks messy (think “winter interest” instead). Many small pollinators — tiny bees and wasps — and eggs of insect predators, wheel bugs, spiders, praying mantises and more may be in (or on) stems. Birds feed on seed heads of coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, thistles, goldenrod and many others.
Any trimming or pruning will wait until spring (unless dead, overhanging branches or dead trees need to be removed for safety’s sake). We have a huge, deceased oak too close to our house for comfort, sadly needing to be removed, but we’ll check for overwintering squirrels or other animals in a hole in the trunk that has seen continuous occupation for many years before we let a tree service take it to the ground.
It served as a roost for owls; we will miss the shade and critters that used it. In the woods, we let snags stand, as they are important habitat dead or alive. Even after trees fall and are left to decay on the ground, they provide homes and food for nearly every bird, animal and insect as well as vitally important fungi and microbial life.
I always (and unapologetically) get this way in autumn as winter looms just over the horizon. Mother Earth in me wants to protect all her children and see them safely to bed.
As it warms up again, it’s time to clean, rehang bird feeders and lay in a supply of black oil sunflower seed for our winter guests — including a feisty cardinal that didn’t seem very grateful upon being caught and rescued from the greenhouse. I still have a V-shaped mark on my finger where he bit me.
It’s always adventures in chaos at Chaos.