For many years, I associated the fall solely with the oranges, reds, and yellows of leaves as they shed their green and became backlit in all of their glory by the raking light of the afternoon sun. And color in the garden was limited to these cascading leaves that landed across my beds and borders, creating a palette that I determined was appropriate for the season. There was something beautiful about this celebration of season’s end and it seemed that the palette connected to the pumpkins and last ripening peppers of the vegetable garden. This was fall.
But, over time, I began to have an appreciation for other colors that can come forth in the shortening days of the fall. From Korean chrysanthemums and asters to colchicum, Japanese anemones and autumn crocus, this season can also have a palette with a broader range of colors. Some of these colors seem to blend in perfectly with my narrow vision of the season, such as the reddish orange daisy-like flowers of the Korean mum “Bolero” and the purple-blue composite flowers of the aptly named “October Skies” aster that brighten beds and borders as days shorten and trigger them to flower. Or the snowy white flowers of the Japanese anemone “Honorine Jobert” which could fit in anywhere, but somehow the lavender hues of autumn crocus, various other asters and mums, and the pink flowers of anemone “Robutissima,” which are held above its tomentose foliage and shaken by the slightest breezes and give this plant it common name of windflower, all seemed to me to be like a old man in a brown suit at a black tie dinner, out of place and a little vulgar in their disrespect for the rules.
Fortunately, over the years, both as a gardener and a person, I have come to be more accepting of many things, and have come to find joy in things that I once may have judged poorly. This maturity of spirit not only attaches to a greater understanding of my own flaws and those of friends and family, but also gives me openness to things that do not fit my preconceived notions of which plants belong where and what is an appropriate seasonal palette for a garden. At one point I would have seen as out of place the pink flowers of “Autumn Joy” sedum and the brash lavender flowers of autumn crocus that push forth their leafless stalks through a bed of fallen leaves with an energy that calls to mind not fall, but the spring bulb season. But the older me has found that I can leave behind the rules of the color wheel, with its contrasting and complementary colors, and just enjoy this crescendo of color that precedes winter, when this colorful chorus will have finished its song and will be muted.
I knew age had its advantages. And if you see me at a black tie dinner in a brown suit with a lavender tie in the coming months, just smile and say it takes all kinds.
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.