Fall is upon us but there’s no reason to put your garden to bed just yet. That’s because the show goes on with birds, thousands of which are migrating and stopping daily in local gardens for a bite to eat or a drink of water. And the activity doesn’t stop there. Monarch butterflies will be looking for nectar – a rich source of energy during their long commute to Mexico. Bees remain active and there’s an assortment of insects – praying mantis and other “beneficials” – that are present until the first fall frost about mid-October. There’s plenty to observe and enjoy.
One of the great benefits of gardening is that it gives us so many moments of joy. We could also call them God’s-in-his-heaven-all’s-right-with-the-world moments.
They take many forms – the much-anticipated opening of a new rose (or a beloved old rose), the first ripe tomato, the scent of a mock orange, the sight of robins plucking berries from a crabapple.
For the past two weeks I’ve been charging around saying I’m willing to bet real money that when the snow melts, there will be inch-tall snowdrops and crocuses already up and just days away from blooming.
It’s still too early to start collecting my money, but today, the icicle that once cascaded a full 3 feet down from the front porch gutter has vanished, and all that’s left is a steady drip-drip from the melting roof. The front yard garden is still blanketed with 2 feet of snow.
George and Theresa Rebersky enjoy growing an assortment of colorful annuals, perennials, vegetables, herbs and gigantic pumpkins in their suburban Worth backyard. But along the driveway leading to their detached garage was a triangle of lawn that separated the drive from the sidewalk. It ran 13 feet on two sides and another 6 feet wide along the patio. There was no connection to the rest of the garden, which has a large arbor, raised beds and a spectacular collection of dahlia flowers and hanging baskets. “The triangle was a dead spot,” George says.
I always feel grumpy when people refer to gardening as a hobby, and now I know why.
This winter, garden columnist Allen Lacy died, and in The New York Times obituary there was a quote from one of his books that suddenly made clear why the hobby moniker has never sat well with me. “Gardening is not a hobby,” Lacy wrote in The Inviting Garden. “There is nothing wrong with having hobbies, but most hobbies are intellectually limited and make no reference to the larger world. By contrast, being wholeheartedly involved with gardens is involvement with life itself in the deepest sense.”
I’m pretty sure that in the pre-Google era most everyone who spoke of or asked about moss was trying to get rid of it. Even now googling “moss in the garden” produces five “how to kill” results before the first “how to grow.” But I recently attended a lecture at the Chicago Botanic Garden given by Dale Sievert, whose passion for and expertise about mosses made me question how anyone could contemplate mayhem against such a beautiful, ancient and eco-friendly organism. Since mosses have slowly, over the past few years, begun to colonize the damper, shadier parts of my tiny urban forest (i.e. my front yard), I was happy to be urged to encourage the process rather than fight it.
Big beefy dahlias with their dinner-plate-sized flowers are darlings of the garden from summer through the first autumn frosts. Although many gardeners treat dahlias as disposable annuals, it’s easy to store them over winter – and save money – for another display the following year. It’s simply a matter of digging up the tubers and roots after the first fall frost.
We are rapidly approaching Corn-Phlegma-Plethora-Terminus-Ucopia and I’m sure that all of you are planning big parties for this beloved
annual gardening event.
Basically, CPPTU or “C-Ptui!” (as it is popularly known) marks that time late in the year when we begin to realize that we don’t have anywhere close to enough storage space to save all of the stuff we’re about to harvest and we’re really not interested in spending the next three months chained to a cutting board inside the canning kitchen pickling Tree of Heaven root and making used-leather-sandal jerky simply because the editors of Organic Flotsam Magazine claim it can be done. Gardeners celebrate C-Ptui! by tossing green pumpkins and rock-hard tomatoes at passing cars with out-of-state license plates.
If all has gone according to plan, our gardens are looking fabulous right about now. Yes, I still hanker after the bold and the beautiful, envisioning arbors draped with 15-foot sprays of fragrant roses and clematis like those I’ve seen in England. But I have no place for an arbor and many of those Anglo behemoths aren’t hardy here, so I’ve chosen a non-fragrant behemoth that is: ‘William Baffin’. If you want an ubermensch rose, this is it. ‘Rubens’, which regularly clambers to the rooftops and transforms even the most nondescript English house into a thing of beauty, I have high hopes this year for Clematis ‘Pendragon’, the 10-foot tall rosy-purple marvel that our Associate Publisher Ann Sanders says blooms non-stop in her Bolingbrook garden. Having a covetous nature, I ordered one for myself as soon as I heard her singing its praises. I’m giving it marching orders to climb to the top of my ‘Emerald Green’ arborvitae.
When food is scarce, our little feathered friends make a beeline for the feeders. Most of the birds wear drab colors — a protective camouflage — this time of year. Goldfinches, for example, shed their bright yellow plumage in late fall, and by winter, they blend in with the drab tan and grey of tree bark and stems. Others, like blue jays and cardinals, are particularly colorful against snow-covered branches. However, “If you thought cardinals were impressive, check this out,” says gardener Jan Lord of Midlothian.
Brace yourself. I’m going to smack you across the kisser with a cold, wet herring of truth: Gardening ain’t easy.
There. I said it. You may now wipe that fish oil from your cheek.
One of the reasons that gardening is harder than it looks is that the people who make the rules keep changing them. I’m talking about the keepers of the binomial nomenclature. (Note: If you enjoy reading this column because it’s fact-free, just close your eyes for the next couple of sentences, while I get the serious stuff out of the way.)
Binomial nomenclature is the rule that every living thing – like a plant – has an unpronounceable scientific name that was created to confuse the bejesus out of people who are not scientists. For instance, you think you’re growing a pansy but it might really be a Viola × wittrockiana Gams ex Nauenb. & Buttler. I’m not making this up! As Randy Shakespeare always said, before he was unceremoniously expunged from the history books, “Google it!”
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