Sunday Opinion: Plenty Going On

No doubt I spend much too much time mourning the passing of the summer season. I am too slow to fish out my boots and jacket; I obssess about the last rose of summer to Buck ad nauseum. The cold irritates me to no end.  In much the same vein, a client remarked the other day that nothing was going on in her garden anymore-it was over.  We spent some time commiserating about all the things that were wrong with the weather. Too cold, too rainy, too windy, too dark-neither of us were liking one thing about it.  Towards the end of this exchange, the humor of it finally came to our rescue-we got to laughing. In spite of our whining and sulking, nothing has come to an end-it is changing.

 Though  the last time I had a big zest for change was probably 45 years ago, I thrive on big fluid situations. The most succinct definition of the state of being in business I have ever read came from Vera Wang;  “being in business is like keeping 300 marbles on a table all at once”.  I might add that while in the process of keeping all those marbles from dropping off, one needs to regularly add new marbles to the existing mix. Getting over one’s grief about the marble that has in fact dropped off is equally as important; taking your eye off the rest of the balls for too long comes to no good end.  I don’t see that the process of living a life, working a job, or growing a garden asks for any different. I have been watching the starch go out of the massive leaves of my Sum and Substance hostas for 10 days now.  The chartreuse leaves loose chlorophyll and turn yellow; the softened stems finally give in to gravity, and bend.  Those stiff puckered leaves droop to the ground as if they were melting. They are melting. In short order, should I not remove them, they will completely collapse in a gooey heap and decompose.   I must be moving on into the new season; this morning the drama of all that drooping made me laugh.

The prime mover in all of these changes is of course the weather.  The day length is shortening. The day and night temperatures drop. Wind, rain and fog deliver the message that the season is in transition.  There comes a day in every gardener’s life when the the light finally comes on-that day when you understand to the bone that the garden is outside. As in, outside of your control. It may take a powerful storm, or a sudden frost, or a thaw in January that forces water back up under your shingles and into the kitchen for that thought to take hold.  In my case, a visit to the vast conservatory at Longwood Gardens marked the day when I really understood that most of what goes on in the landscape is not at my direction. The giant vaulted glass roof of the vast exhibition hall excludes all the weather except for the light or lack thereof of the sun.  In the working sections of the conservatory, plants being grown for seasonal display are grown under lights; natural light would interfere too much with the production schedule.  The fall chrysanthemums and holiday pointsettias have a staging date already set. There is an enormous amount of time and effort expended to control every aspect of plant culture; in return, this space is as close to perfectly green as can be, all year round.  I was struck as if by lightening; this is not a garden.  It is a grand effort which has produced a reasonable facsimile of a garden.

This is exactly why I feel that good landscape design deliberately celebrates the daily action that we call weather. There is no such thing as a day off from weather; by my calculation, I have lived with daily weather some 21,535 days.  This in and of itself is not so remarkable. That every day the weather is in some way changing, and certainly different than the day before – extraordinary. As a result, every place in my garden there is something new to look at. At this moment, the asparagus going gold yellow, the fallen leaves randomly dotting my lawn, the alyssum volunteers blooming in the gravel walk, the fresh foliage thrown by the grape hyacinths, the hellebores setting buds and the dogwoods fruiting-there is plenty going on. I have my branches back; the structure of which is different from tree to tree, and shrub to shrub.  The bare branches are every bit as interesting and beautiful as branches in leaf. The slanting October light on the branches-gorgeous. A days rain waters my freshly planted tulip bulbs in; I so look forward to the ritual of the putting away of the hoses. A storm coat, a pair of muck boots, and my mud gloves are all that it takes to get me out there. I am able to put away the spade and the trowel in favor of the experiential tools I have on me all the time. I can smell the coming of the cold.  I can see the geese migrating. I can hear the rain on the roof and the wind blowing just fine from inside; I can walk outside should I wish to turn up the volume. I can keep my hands in my pockets.  But no matter what I should decide to do or not do in my garden, there is always plenty going on.


  1. I, too, have been mourning the passing of the summer season here in Minnesota. It’s been depressing to see my garden limp. However, I’ve been captivated by the fall colors of all the trees surrounding my property (oaks, amur maple, birch, ash, and pagoda dogwood). I find it fascinating that my “My Girl” shrub rose is still putting on an amazing show even in this snowy/cold, rainy weather we’ve had in the past couple weeks (6 roses and more buds coming!). Thanks for writing this perspective article, I really enjoyed it! I’m getting excited about collecting natural materials to decorate my winter pots and arches pretty soon.

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