The Forgotten Season

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Oh, my aching muscles...

By Lucy Hardiman

The dog days of summer have come and gone, leaving scorched earth and plants in their wake. September usually beguiles and tempts us with the promise of longer, cooler nights and more temperate daytime temperatures—however near-record highs that month made a mockery of Mother Nature’s normal covenant. Exhausted gardeners beat a hasty retreat as the inevitable storms of October made their way onshore, deluging and drenching our gardens with refreshing rain. Trees, shrubs and perennials bowed down in obeisance to the winds of autumn, ready to enter the season of dormancy, rejuvenation and quiet.

With the onset of fall, Northwest gardeners engage in the time-honored, traditional and ritualistic tasks necessary to put the garden to bed for the winter. Deciduous trees and shrubs celebrate the season with a cacophony of color, a last gasp, as the mechanism for chlorophyll production goes on hiatus. Falling leaves gently descend and settle, coccooning lawn and garden in a mantle of scarlet, russet, biscuit, gold and fawn. The non-gardening, male spousal unit or life partner eventually appears—rake in hand—to disturb the autumnal blanket gathering up the sacrificial offerings and adding them to the compost pile or hauling them away.

Some perennials die gracefully, shedding foliage while offering ripening seedheads to hungry birds. Others stand seemingly tall, surprising us when they finally slump and fall over after the first frost, transformed overnight into a blackened, slimy mess. Many perennials can be cut back now. It is best not to adopt a slash and burn mentality but assesses the possible winter attributes of each plant. The fading blades of ornamental grasses tremble in the breeze ready to dance until it is time to cut them down in late winter. As nature pares the garden back the full import and impact of broadleaved and needled evergreen shrubs and trees are revealed as the garden sheds its fluffy finery assuming a spare grace and elegance.

As autumn slowly lifts the veil of foliage and flower from the garden it is again time to assess and review our successes and failures. Now is the time to edit the garden, moving or saying a fond farewell to plants that didn’t thrive, outgrew their locations, clashed with their neighbors, ended up being invasive or that you just didn’t like. This annual garden review can be traumatic. Feelings of disappointment, guilt and anticipation course through me simultaneously as I walk, look and plan. We are so beguiled by the lure of instant gratification that we forget that refining the garden is a patient process, one that at the end of each seasonal display honors the spirit and intent of the gardener.

Your gardening peers and muses have made multitudinous mistakes, based on inexperience, stupidity, excitement, plant lust and the willingness to experiment. From their collective input questions emerge that we can use to help us review our gardens. Have you planted a third of your garden with needled and broadleaved evergreens—plants whose structural presence anchors the garden year-round? Those of us who succumb to the lure of too many perennials end up with voids and gardens without good bones. Is the garden intriguing and interesting on a seasonal basis? Is the garden resplendent with a rainbow of colors displayed by sinuous or exfoliating bark, jewel toned berries, fabulous foliage, and fleeting flowers? Gardens are by virtue and design, sensual on many levels—is yours? Is a stroll through the garden interrupted by whiffs of remembered fragrances? Are both the gardener and visitor enticed to linger in small, discreet places tucked into the overall fabric of the garden?

Filtering how we see the garden through the lens that is autumn sets our course for spring. Insights gleaned from the forgotten season are the plans for the garden to come.

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