Fall in this part of the world is often more of a collision of summer and winter than a season in its own right. Temperatures swing wildly between unseasonable warmth and unexpected cold. Trees color and leaves fall right on top of lawns that still need mowing. The days grow shorter as the weeds grow taller. The tall, wild white ageratum comes into its glory in every untended spot, while the short blue annual ageratum is breathing its last in gardens everywhere.
At this time of the year, you should do two things: cover your body with two or three layers of clothes, so you can remove the layers gradually in the event of unexpectedly torrid conditions; and go out and take stock of your garden.
When I take stock, I tote up all my successes first. Just this week one of them became obvious. The previous owner of my house had a soft spot for hardy hibiscus and its relative, Rose of Sharon, and she installed one of the former in an unenviable spot at the rear of the back garden. The plant has performed valiantly in that location, though it was partially shaded by an aging and somewhat undernourished maple tree. This summer I finally realized that it was time to either make a commitment to my adopted ‘Disco Belle’ hibiscus, or send it to the compost heap. When the hibiscus survived a direct hit from a large dead maple branch, I decided to try and save it.
Taking up my spade, I dug up the five-foot shrub, hefted it about ten feet to a less shady spot, and replanted it, adding substantial amounts of compost and water to the planting hole. For weeks afterward I was convinced that I had finally succeeded in killing my transplant, because it lost all its leaves and sagged in a pathetic way. My daughter laughed when I continued to water it. I finally decided that I really didn’t want all those dinner plate-size red blossoms anyway, even if they do arrive in the summer when nothing else is blooming.
Fortunately I was too lazy to dig the hibiscus up and get rid of it. Today when I inspected the garden I noticed that it is sprouting a nice crop of fresh green leaves. ‘Disco Belle’ has seized the moment, established roots and resurrected itself. How can I not prune and water it now? How can I not pat myself on the back for being such a courageous gardener?
This year I had wonderful roses, including the ‘New Dawn’ on my backyard arch that went over the top of the arch and shows every intention of proceeding down the other side. A ‘Gloire de Dijon’ that has been limping along for two years has finally sprouted a healthy long cane. My irises are so robust that they are all in need of division, and the swamp milkweed tht I raised from seed flourished. I can further congratulate myself on getting out and cutting down the spent milkweed stalks after the flowers faded so that everyone in the neighborhood does not have swamp milkweed next spring.
The single cherry tomato plant is another source of pride. Even now it is threatening to take over northern New Jersey, and is still producing fruit though the possibility of frost looms large. In the front yard, the nasturtiums have gone to town, even working their way artistically through the latticework that hides the pilings under the front porch. When people compliment me on the effect, I make every effort to convince them that it was intentional. After all, if I had thought of it, it might have been.
Heartened by my successes, I can also confront areas that need more work. (There are no failures in the garden, only ideas that need to be better thought out, areas that need more work, and plants that could be better sited.) Last spring I decided that I needed a lot more color, and this fall I will dedicate myself to buying lots of bulbs and actually getting them all installed. While I am digging all those bulb trenches I can also lay down newspaper and mulch to widen my existing beds. If there is one thing that tries my patience, it is narrow, stingy looking beds. Unfortunately I have them. Since patience is in short supply these days, it is in my best interests to widen the beds as soon as possible.
My hybrid musk roses are my pride and joy, but even I have to admit that they are unruly. This fall I will prune out the weak canes and peg the strong ones. Pegging is an old fashioned technique that consists of bending the flexible long rose canes and tying them to their own bases. This creates more blooms and a tidier appearance. My closets may be messy, but my roses will be neat. After all, life is about balance.
I will also make a commitment to prune the butterfly bush in the backyard twice next season. It attracted scores of butterflies this year, but it was gangly and unattractive instead of full and rounded. The best thing about this resolution is that it requires no immediate action except a notation to myself.
I still need to get rid of the last yew in front of my house. Its three neighbors have gone the way of all things, but last spring I was too busy to get it out. Yew is an unyielding wood that does not give up without a battle. Still, I want to put an unusual rhododendron in place of my lone yew, so I will prepare myself for the battle even if I have to spend two weeks at Camp Lejeune to do so.
There are, of course, scores of other things that went wrong, or could be corrected or expanded, but I find it is better to limit my self-assessment to areas where there is a chance of improvement. In fact, one of my gardening goals is to limit the number of gardening goals I set at any one time, so that I can actually accomplish a few of them.