Indian summer days
It is nearly Thanksgiving here in Maryland and only the oak trees are hanging on to their leaves and, still, we are in the middle of a 70-degree day. Its the second in a row, with promises of at least one or two more.
How I love the Mid-Atlantic region. Weather like this allows you to garden well past the time when the rest of the Northeast has oiled its pruners and put them to bed.
I was out this weekend, planting bulbs in containers (more on that later this week in my column in The Baltimore Sun), trimming back the hosta foliage and picking up all the twigs that landed in the yard after a wind storm.
My neighbor Bob and my neighbor Ruth think I am nuts, and that I "make work" in the garden. Bob gardens on a principle of benign neglect and Ruth is grateful when the chores are done for the season.
But I will continue to find things to do until the snow flies. And after, if we have a break in the weather.
Years ago, I wrote a column about my determination to keep gardening. It was about my son, Joseph, too. He was just a teen-ager when this column appeared in 2000. It seems like a million years ago now.
The column remains one of my favorites, and I share it here.
Photo credit: Baltimore Sun/Gene Sweeney (1998 file photo)
My 16-year-old was standing on the deck, smiling, and I knew by that rare expression on his face that I had amused him again with the inexplicable chores I create for myself in the garden.
"Dad," he hollered. "C'mere. Mom is trying to hold back the seasons."
A higher power had done that for me. The calendar said November, but I was sweating as I worked. I was watering, too, and that felt kind of silly.
"Mom," Joe said firmly. "It's over. Come inside. Relax."
He was talking about the season for gardening, but I told him he was wrong. It is never really over. It is only interrupted, perhaps, by an occasional snowstorm.
"There is always something to do in the garden," I said, and he shook his head and went back inside for another dose of college football.
I have always loved the mild, summery autumns of the mid-Atlantic region, and now that I have given myself over to gardening, I love this season even more.
Fall doesn't have the energy of spring, when you can almost feel the new growth pushing out of the ground. And it doesn't have the sunny radiance of summer, with that season's abundant growth and color.
In fact, aside from a few fading mums and some darkening sedum, there isn't much to look at in my fall garden. Even the hostas have wilted like lettuce that has been frozen and thawed. Nevertheless, I can feel the ground around me drinking in every last ray of the sun (and drop of water, too, this dry fall), and hoarding it against the winter to come.
There is plenty for me to do. Divide the daylilies and the irises. Rearrange the "furniture" in a newly planted bed that didn't grow into the shape I had imagined for it. Sprinkle a little bone meal there, a little lime here, some Epsom salts on the roses and some spent coffee grounds on the hydrangea.
Plant the narcissus bulbs and a few new perennials. Clean the tools and sort the supplies on the shelf in the garage. My gardening books give me an endless list of things to do before the frost seals the earth, and seals me inside my house.
I notice with some sadness that the seed in the birdfeeders does not disappear so quickly anymore, and I know most of my gardening companions are gone. I replace the seed with suet for the ones who winter over.
The last of the leaves fall like raindrops on my naked vegetable garden and I decide I will leave them there for the winter, like a coverlet for the worms. The rest go in the compost pile. I might not be much of a cook, I tell my disgusted children as I carry kitchen scraps outside, but I sure can make great dirt.
As I work, a breeze rustles the wind chimes, and I think about how remarkably warm the wind is for November. I remind myself to take them down before they rattle like Marley's chains in the bitter winds to come.
My garden gets a buzz cut in the fall. I cut the faded perennials back to the ground. But the ornamental grasses will stay until March winds blow them bald.
I fear the rake in my vulnerable gardens. So, on my hands and knees, I scrape the leaves out of my gardens with a gloved hand and cast them behind me onto the grass.
I hear the rus-s-s-k, rus-s-s-k of the rake, and I am momentarily confused by the sound. I rock back on my heels and look behind me to find my 16-year-old raking leaves.
I could tease him about this voluntary chore and ask a cynical question about what he is hoping for in return. But I say nothing and return to gently picking leaves out of my garden the way I once picked them out of a laughing toddler's hair.
We are silent as we work, the two of us. Trying to hold back time.