September is the time when the trees start to take center stage for the big show in October, but it’s heavenly because the garden is making it’s last burst and no matter where you look something beautiful is going on.
The blue heron is used to the whirr and click of my camera now but still flies away if I get too close (above). Right now it seems odd to post what is just outside the window but winter will be here all too soon and then I will be glad to have these to scroll through when it’s all buried under the snow.
But it’s the juxtaposition of leaves and changing blooms that seems to squeeze the entire growing season into one photo. Below are three versions of the same shot, each focused differently: first the phlox, then the hydrangea and then the changing ivy.
We are at that point where it is too late to put in anything new (no new bulbs going in this year, I think) and not time to cut things down or rake, so we’ll just sit back and watch the show – I already posted some of the spectacular colors of October.
The last garden post overlooked some moments and photos so I’m backtracking a bit. I planted these Forget Me Nots years ago and they’ve always done okay but this year one of the plants in a part-sun location bloomed as never before, and I managed to capture the true blue, which is often elusive with a digital camera. Also having a good year is the only peony bush I planted myself. It’s taken a few years but now it blooms almost as much as the plants that were here when we moved in. I thought that the flowers would be orangey red but they turned out magenta, which is fine with me. It is an exact match with the magenta in the Crayola Crayon box, which my best friend and I fought over as if it was the most important thing in the world. It must have been second or third grade, and when I think of us sitting in their breakfast room off the kitchen it seems almost quaint to think of us, coloring and arguing so earnestly. My own girl hoarded the red crayons as a toddler, flatly refusing to share, a fierce scowl on her face. We clearly have a gene that predisposes us to jealously guard art supplies. I still love to color with crayons.
And the astilbe – it’s a monster that gets bigger every year and I love it. There were several in the garden when we arrived, but the rest of them are tepid at best while this one now dominates and has practically swallowed up the dephiniums next to it. I didn’t really appreciate the delicate beauty of this plant until I visited Edith Wharton’s estate in Lenox, MA, last year, The Mount. There’s a lovely labyrinth below the house that is completely made up of white astilbe and we happened to visit when it was in full bloom. Spectacular.
Not everything is growing like gangbusters. The hydrangea has been giving us fits, because it is bigger than ever but not blooming like everyone else’s. After much consulting and cajoling and applying copious amounts of water, fertilizer and coffee grounds, it finally squeaked out some blossoms. I did so many things I have no idea which, if any, of them, did the trick. The blooms are beautiful at every stage and they last for so long, changing slowly from green to white to blue.
Astilbe and hydrangeas are part of our present – plants I’ve only come to appreciate recently – while the peonies and lilacs and always pull me into the past. The rhododendrons span across the decades, reminding me of the enormous ones in the gardens at MIT and the even bigger ones that bloom for graduation on the perimeter of Killian Court. It’s quite a sight.
When last we checked, the azalea was on its way out and the rhododendrons, peonies and irises were on their way in. With a dizzying combination of cool days, sunshine and torrential rain, it has been a changeable, wonderful spring for flowers.
The butterflies made the most of the last of the azalea blossoms. For once I pruned it right on time, as soon as the last flower wilted. I hope that the trimming will save it from the ice damage the extremities seem to suffer each winter.
Down the hill the white rhododendron bloomed almost overnight, its blossoms delicate and quick to wilt in the stormy weather, like a lady’s summer linen dress. When I look at the June sun through white blossoms it seems so right that it’s the season of weddings, graduations and first communions. Our charter school established a lovely tradition of families bringing in flowers and branches from their gardens to decorate the school indoors and out for its high school graduation. Buckets of water await at morning dropoff and people unload a dazzling array of plants and cuttings. Parent volunteers spend the whole morning making arrangements large and small for the podium and receptions tables. Every year is different, but we agreed that this year the weather provided a flower bonanza.
The pink rhododendrons are a bit of a mystery – one towers over the rock garden, loaded with blossoms and buzzing with bumblebees, the others in the deeper shade offer only a blossom or two, if any at all. We will fertilize in the fall and see what happens.
The scent of the white and whisper pale pink peonies outside the front door brings a rush of memories of springs past, when our mother sent us outside to clip flowers for the dinner table. The only thing missing is a purple lilac bush; we have a white one down the drive that is barely hanging on because the towering pines block the sun it needs. We just don’t have enough sun near the house to sustain a lilac, but that shade is what keeps the rest of the garden green in the dog days of summer.
I wait all winter for the deep blue of my favorite irises – they shift from blue to purple in the changing light all day long. I visit them each time on my way to and from the car, taking time to prune and check the progress of the later peonies to the left that will bloom just as they wane. The larger varieties of irises are less vibrant and droop so quickly (they need to be staked), but they also pop out when the garden is viewed from a distance. This looks like it is the first year there are so many irises we will need to split them. That didn’t stop me, however, from buying more at the garden club sale – these teeny ones are just right at the front border, and they bloomed right after I put them in. In the few weeks since they bloomed the leaves have filled in nicely, leaving me hopeful for a beautiful border next spring.
Next up: lilies, astilbe, delphiniums, cone flowers, coreopsis and some maddening hydrangeas.
Sometimes the preoccupations, joys, and demands of this life – of any life – make friendships seem almost optional – something you can go back to when you have time and space after all obligations are met. I am guilty of back-burnering too many things and people that engage me in a positive way, even within my own house.
I withdraw to my iPad too often, looking for the news or posts that will push me a little further along in advocacy and giving me the illusion of being in touch with people. I am grateful for the ways my online exploits keep me connected to people I love, but sometimes it usurps the ones closer to home. That, my boy would say, is simply too stupid.
Today, a bunch of little things went wrong but they led me to a place I was clearly meant to go, to see someone I always love to see. I came away with this bracelet as a reminder to be more deliberate about being a little less useful and a little more happy.
We are in the midst of a year of milestones, most of which I would like to ignore. One welcome distraction is chronicling the progress of the garden. I am not an expert gardener (but am lucky to have friends that are) but found a few years back that once I planted a perennial that actually bloomed for a second season, I was hooked. What I love even more than the plants, sun and earth is the few minutes spent each morning with my husband as we look to see what has changed over the past day – new blooms, spots that need something more, what will bloom next.
As I sift through the photos of the last six weeks, I cannot help but think about the days on which I took them and the times during which I planted some things.
We were greeted by brash red tulips when we return from a trip over April vacation. It was a trip that alternated between doing fun things, seeing old friends, eating great food and being glued to screens as we watched in morbid fascination the events after the Boston Marathon Bombings. Looking at the red tulips at home, I remembered that it was after September 11, 2001, that I began gardening in earnest. It was a hot, dry, fall that year, as if the clouds had been chased away by the smoke from New York. I realized that I had spent those first years in our home inside with babies and toddlers and that now they were old enough that I could spent a few of our outdoor minutes – very few – away from the swing set and sandbox. As I planted bulbs that October – hoping against hope that the right end of them was pointing up – a neighbor strolled up and asked what I was doing. My answer surprised even me. I told him that everything I had done to make that house a home was on the inside. After renting for so many years, I felt I had been holding back on the idea of putting down roots in this place. But September 11 had told me to embrace the life we have and the place we have chosen, however temporary. Planting bulbs was a way of taking ownership of this life and my role in it. The bulbs I planted that day? Red tulips.
Tulips are daring. They poke through when nothing else is willing to go first, and sometimes they betray us and don’t come back. All of the tulips planted by the previous owner are gone now, and the numbers of my own tulips (except the red ones) are already dwindling.
These pink ones go through phases when they bloom – they start out kind of hairy and menacing, the colors pale and cool like the light, and then suddenly they warm up and open joyously. Early spring is such an interesting combination of cold and barely warm, as if nature hasn’t quite adjusted the controls on the colors yet.
Crazy forsythia yellow and tulip red are set against barely discernible pink and blue hyacinths. These tulips, which take a long time to open, seem to follow the progress of color with the seasonal light, drawing the warm pigments up from the soil. I think of this image every year when we wake up one gray November morning to find that the bright autumn colors have been completely drained from the landscape. It’s like all of the pigments get sucked down into the earth until spring, when the color faucets slowly creak open and the colors bubble back up to the surface. It’s a story that might make a good picture book someday.
The creeping phlox (first lavender, then pink) and candy tuft are next, and I am glad to see they are making their way around the garden lamps and the tulips because I much prefer them to mulch as a backdrop. My goal is for the perennials and ground covers to fill in so completely that someday we will only need to mulch around the maple. Now that I think about that, it might spell an earlier demise for the tulips. I will have to look it up.
The peonies, astilbe, day lilies and irises start to fill in while the lazy hostas decide whether they are going to disappoint me again. Everyone in the world can grow so many hostas they have to dig the extras up and give them away, but not me. The hostas that do bother to return unfurl a leaf or two and then run out of steam. They are in league with the Pachysandra, I think, which continues to make pathetic showing. But this year the hostas look better than usual, and if they come through then I will post a photo. I won’t jinx it yet.
A good thing about daffodils, my friend T. pointed out, is that the leaves stay beautifully green long after the blooms are gone. No so for tulips, and one reason they don’t last is that we probably trim the droopy yellow leaves earlier than we should.
Then the Japanese maple shows its leaves and we know spring is truly here to stay. The garden sits where once there were two more trees lining the stone walk – a flowering pear and a paper birch. But even as they provided welcome shade in the summer, there wasn’t enough water or earth in this former gravel pit to sustain all three trees so we cut the other two down in favor of the maple, and it has thrived ever since, becoming a beloved tree that would make Joyce Kilmer proud. During winter storms we go out to shake any heavy snow or ice off its branches, sometimes in the middle of the night, we are so worried about losing it.
As the phlox peak and the tulips and daffodils fade, the azalea lights up such a bright orangey red that I think of it as a burning bush. Springtime seems to often bring big moments (births, deaths, graduations) and I have many memories of sitting by the window, looking at the bush and trying to cull some kind of wisdom from the flowers. Now and then, a hummingbird pays a lighting quick visit, and that is always a good day.
It’s a rare but beautiful thing:An unexpected gap opens in your otherwise overbooked day. You realize — with disbelief — that you’re actually “free” for a short window. No one’s hair is on fire and there isn’t anything urgent to take care of right now. Maybe the baby who never sleeps finally closes her eyes or your spouse takes the kids out on an errand or you’re between conference calls. Whatever it is, you realize that the next little bit of time is not yet spoken for. The window is too short to dig into a project, but you do have time for something. What do you do?
For many of us, one thing rises reflexively to the top of the list of possibilities: Facebook. (Or whatever social media you happen to prefer.) We fritter away our 10, 20, or 30 minutes scrolling through the minutia and photographic…
Right on cue, the weather turned cool, the summer haze lifted, and the sweatshirts came out. People and nature fall into step for the first day of school. Squinting in the sunshine, I see the first leaves drift down, only the edges yellow and red, and I swear can smell the apples ripening even though the orchards are miles away. Labor Day is coming up and the blooms on the snowball bushes are trading in their white for pink. The boys put on their new sneakers, and I get out my hipster glasses so that I can read the tiny type on all of those forms I have to fill out with my brand new sharpies.
I have not even reached for the towel yet after my shower when a voice pipes up around the corner “Ready to go yet, Mom?” School isn’t scheduled to start for an hour, it takes fifteen minutes to get there, and I know he heard me turn off the water four seconds earlier. No, I am not ready to go. But I am glad that it is still possible for a teenager to be excited for the first day of school, so I snap it up and get him there twenty minutes early, knowing that for the first time in 10 weeks I will be returning to an empty house.
Our heat wave is nothing compared to what they are suffering in the Midwest, but it’s been a few weeks since a good rain and this is the first time I have seen birds fly directly through the sprinkler’s spray. The early spring brought the bears out of hibernation ahead of schedule and they are showing up all over the place – the most recent within walking distance of our house. Local naturists say that the bears’ feeding schedule has been disrupted and this has somehow sent them in search of alternative sources of food. It is hard to say whether the foxes roaming the neighborhood every evening are part of the trend or the usual order of things. All I know is that I find fur and tails (squirrel, rabbit) and feathers (chicken, hawk, and mourning dove, I think) in the yard almost every day. And last weekend when I went out to see what the kids were doing down the street and it was dark, I heard such a commotion in the woods from all sides when I opened the door that I turned and went back in the house, grabbed my car keys and drove to find them. Our neighbor told me that when he takes his dog out he shines a flashlight in the woods and counts the pairs of eyes that look back.
I don’t know what it means – the drought, the snowy fall and snowless winter, the collapsing glaciers – but part of me wonders if while we are inside on our screens trying to make sense of it we can find a way to save the world crumbling outside. And so I move the sprinkler around systematically to sate each corner of the yard, standing each time for a few minutes, mezmerized by its tick tick tick, and hope that it is enough.
Spring is a month early and I am not complaining even though we have had precious little rain. Having come late to the gardening party I have noticed only in recent years that each spring things sprout and bloom in a slightly different order. This year the change is more dramatic: the peonies are well on their way, even as the forsythia is in full bloom. The tulips seem visibly annoyed to being pushed aside by the busy peonies; they are used to having the front garden all to themselves. The azalea, battered by autumn storms and with no snow cover to protect it from the winter wind, seems to have given up in exhaustion and pushed out only a handful of blooms from nearly bare branches.
I am always particularly glad to see the tulips. The red ones are the first to appear and the first I ever planted. I put the bulbs in shortly after September 11, 2001. Before then, my attempts at gardening were halfhearted and largely unsuccessful; our yard is so shady and the soil so sandy and acidic that no perennial I planted ever came back the following spring. But the previous owner clearly knew what to plant and so the garden she built always filled in nicely. But there were a few spots near the driveway that got a little sun and seemed a little bare, and the events of that fall got me to thinking that I’d been living in our house like a renter – doing precious little to show any kind of long term commitment to a family home now buzzing with three young children. The crazy world (remember Graydon Carter announcing the end of irony?) and the empty skies of that September made me look up from storybooks and changing tables and brought me outside, and made me want to plant something beautiful, something hopeful, for the spring.
So I did. And they bloomed, and have bloomed every year ever since (provided I remember to put out soap to keep the deer from nibbling the bulbs). When the trees at the front of the house grew too big we had to take two of them down and that gave me more sun and soil to work with, and my perennial track record improved: sedum, cone flowers, delphiniums, daffodils, iris, bachelor buttons, phlox, creeping thyme. A few years ago hyacinths appeared out of nowhere and they seem to be proliferating. The original daylilies are stalwart and dependable as ever. The hydrangea and the poppies are dubious and bloom sporadically. The hollyhocks are a total failure. The shady areas still baffle me; the ivies are anemic and I am the only person I know who can’t grow hostas.
Last spring I took an inventory and ordered more tulips and daffodils to supplement my reds – I wanted orange. The box showed up in late August for fall planting, at which time I promptly broke my foot and was relegated to the couch for 4-6 weeks. My plan was to get them in just after Halloween, but when I went to plant them the box was in the recycling, empty. My husband had come upon them and handed the box to my daughter and told her to plant them, which she did, grudgingly, with little attention to where. So all winter long I waited to see if and where they would come up.
This week, they emerged – a few here a few there, some in groups, some in rows, some in places where the deer dined on them so I don’t even know for sure which ones they are. It isn’t the way I would have done it – it is better, creating a haphazard path of blooms up the front walk, starting with my 2001 tulips. Nothing at all about this whole operation went according to plan but it all seems so right – this is her senior year, and these are her tulips that she planted at the only home she has ever known. Next spring I will cry when they come up and send photos of them to her at college which will delight and exasperate her.
It is only now, as I type, that I recall my own mother hovering over her tulips in our back yard in Saint Louis, and how the entire city seemed to be swimming in them the last time I went to see her in hospice. Saint Louis sees spring much sooner than New England so that visit was, for us, like Dorothy emerging from the back and white of winter to full technicolor spring. It was an intensely sad and joyful time, punctuated by tulips. Every time the deer snack on them I swear I will not plant any more, but I don’t think I can stop. Not now.