For the longtime gardener, each change of season comes as the comforting recognition of an old friend returning home. At this time of year, when days begin to grow markedly shorter, I start looking forward to a lessening of daily watering and weeding. When you weed in spring, new weedlings are sprouting up before you get your pruners back in the holster. By late August, summer weeds are as enervated as the inveterate gardener is.
We have spent many months keeping everything in the garden within bounds. By the end of summer, it feels like a great effort to control the languor of what was once abundant plant growth. Summer perennials are in decline. Until now, we spent our time deadheading to encourage a second bloom. These days, we deadhead in an effort to turn the focus to late-season flower and foliage.
If you stayed on top of weeding until now, you might only have to run a hoe across the surface of your garden beds on a regular basis. If you mulched earlier in the year, weeds that do come up won't have a solid footing and are easy to pull out by hand. Weeds on the outskirts of the garden are able to hide their growth and occasionally set flower. Remove these before the flower sets seed and spreads them into next year's garden.
In many parts of America, gardeners garden by the book. They read the monthly list at the back of magazines and do each chore by a specific date. In the east, fountains are drained on Sept. 21. Roses are heeled into the ground for winter protection well before the first snow. In the Northwest, seasonal advice from other parts of the country doesn't appear to be quite so imperative.
Most Americans envision a lush and lovely destination when they speak of the Pacific Northwest in summer. Few realize the moderate tenor of our seasons. In both urban and suburban neighborhoods, it's likely that the Northwest gardener will be able to adorn the Thanksgiving table with a small bouquet of late-blooming roses. My climbing rose Fourth of July is blooming now for the first time this year.
In the Northwest, our lawns can be lusher in winter than in the peak of the summer gardening season. On a warm December morning, the ornamental cherry, Prunus subhirtella Autumnalis, produces clusters of dainty, shell pink blossoms from bare-naked branches. Our seasons meld in and out of each other, summer to fall and back again to Indian Summer before finally settling in to full-blown autumn. In turn, seasonal garden chores are approached using a more relaxed timetable.
Still, gardening is not an avocation for the slacker. Successful gardening requires time, effort and persistence. If we didn't play such a major role in our garden's creation, it would still be beautiful but we would miss the connection to our emotional selves. It's clearly our whole hearted involvement that binds us so fundamentally to our gardens. When we plant a tulip in autumn and then watch it emerge in the spring, we feel a definite connection to the garden process.
One of the most profound aspects of gardening is the fact that we and nature are transformed by the continual change of seasons. If we make the effort to plant an area of the garden with a combination of berry-bearing holly, December-flowering hellebores and red twig dogwood shrubs, we no longer dread the onset of winter. One of the reasons we garden is to play a thoughtful, creative role in the life we live. When we care this much, what we do has meaning.
As I ponder the late summer garden I'm reminded that the onset of autumn always sneaks up on me as a feeling of anticipated surprise. Not that I waste my summer days on thoughts of other seasons, but it seems that a time comes every year when a fellow gardener casually mentions the imminent crisp morning air and cool afternoon breezes and I realize that a simultaneous change has already begun to take place in me.
Flying Hawk, an American Indian said, "If the Great Spirit wanted men to stay in one place, He would make the world stand still; but He made it to always change, so birds and animals can move and always have green grass and ripe berries, sunlight to work and play and night to sleep." I relish every aspect of the summer garden but I find myself relieved, anticipating the arrival of autumn in the air.
Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at Write2Robb@aol.com.