In fall, the level of activity in the garden is very different from the mad rush in the spring. In the spring, gardeners are running about trying to clear beds of debris and last season’s foliage before the spring shoots of perennials make the task more complicated. I know one gardener, who literally mows a large patch of evergreen barrenwort to the ground, timing the mowing just before this perennial’s spring flowers and new foliage emerge. (Barrenwort leaves often emerge with bold colors that evolve over the season just as their sprays of tiny flowers fade.) This moment feels frenetic, whereas the fall cleanup feels more leisurely. Sure, the leaves have to get pulled off of the lawn, and ideally shredded and placed onto perennial beds, and it would be ideal to get some compost spread to enliven the soil in vegetable plots, but the looming deadline is the inevitable snowfall that brings the season to a close. The temperature is not on the rise, and this impacts our approach to the season and its demands.
And this year, the lateness of the first frost makes us assume the first snow will be equally tardy, and that we can take it easy. I hope so because, with any luck, I will be taking the day off this Sunday to attend Berkshire Botanical Garden’s “Rooted in Place” symposium, where I can do a little daydreaming about my garden without a rake in my hand. Rebecca McMackin from Brooklyn Bridge Park will be there with tips on soil amendment, letting seeds fall where they may, and what to leave up for the winter to nourish birds and other fauna. She is part of a new generation of gardeners who don’t cut their garden down to nothing in the fall but rather allow it to host local insects and other creatures that will help support the garden and create a healthy ecosystem in the surrounding environment.
Rebecca’s talk will help me justify taking this Sunday off, whereas the talk by Sam Hoadley, who works at Mount Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware, will turn the whole day into sheer indulgence. Sam’s talk will focus on the cultivars of native plants that Mount Cuba has been growing and assessing for use in the garden. When I visited his garden several years back, I saw varieties of baptisias, bluestars, and ironweed laid out in trial gardens on the property, and I am excited to hear which ones proved to be strong performers. While Rebecca will give me practical advice about fall garden clean-up, Sam will give me things to dream about, not only while raking up leaves but also through the upcoming cold winter nights. Given that the other speakers at the symposium will also provide both solid advice and vision for cultivating the landscape, why am I beating myself up over spending a fall Sunday not working in my garden?
For me, gardening is about both the practical and the ethereal, and I expect this Sunday’s symposium will help keep me rooted in place in the seasons to come. Then, when spring comes and I again feel overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done, I will be grateful that the Berkshire Botanical Garden had the foresight to hold a symposium in the fall, and that I had the sense to take a respite from my fall schedule to attend it.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.