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The Self-Taught Gardener: After the fall

As squirrels gather acorns for winter sustenance, our Self-Taught Gardener Lee Buttala, takes in the beauty of fall as the emotional equivalent.

Fall gives me a special feeling. As late season crops get harvested and the garden goes into senescence, a languor and sense of luxury slowly fill me. Watching squirrels pack away the season’s mast for a cold winter day – that is, when my beagle Fred, who has his own love of chestnuts and hickory nuts, doesn’t thwart them — reminds me of how we all work to carry what we value into the next season, even while still taking in the bounty and glory of the season at hand.

Beyond the current political chaos, this fall holds some personal turmoil for me, as my sisters and I seek treatment for our nonagenarian mother whose hip might require replacement, not only to relieve her from the pain of a bone-on-bone joint, but also to allow her to remain active and engaged in the world around her. As I stay with her in this moment, helping her gather medical advice and build up her strength to move forward through whatever treatment lies ahead, I also need to find a source of replenishment for my own energy which is being depleted by her situation.

In fall, Lurie Garden at Millennium Park in Chicago is filled with late blooming perennials as well as the seed heads of plants that bloomed earlier in the season. They all contribute the beauty of the fall.

Fortunately, Fred is with my mother and me during this time, and he forces me out on excursions in the environs of Chicago. Dogs have an innate sense of how to take care of others while meeting their own needs. Fred sits at my mother’s side throughout the day and then gets up three times a night to check on her. He also pulls me out the door each morning after breakfast to take in the season. It is through him that I have come to discover that these sojourns — into the prairies and woods and along the Chicago lakefront — are essential for storing energy for the days to come. Squirrels store acorns for the winter; these autumnal escapades are my emotional equivalent. They give me the strength and inspiration to move forward in the present, but they also build up and are stored in my heart and soul, giving me something to hold onto in the weeks ahead as my mother faces possible surgery and subsequent physical therapy and will need my support. Perhaps her health has heightened the emotions I attach to the season, but as Fred and I step off on our morning and afternoon walks, I cannot help but see the beauty in the shattered seed head of a compass plant. Its seeds, formed weeks after its yellow flowers were fertilized, have been scattered by the wind, will germinate next spring, and will flower and set seeds themselves in the years ahead, moving the species forward from generation to generation.

Asters provide sustenance to birds as they migrate to warmer climates, but will still have time to set seed before season’s end.

I also find hope and promise in the late blooming asters in the forest preserve and in a smattering of zinnias that border a house around the corner from my mother’s. These plants offer their flowers late into the season, working hard to set and drop seed in the weeks ahead, after their flowers have provided nourishment for birds on their southward migration. The cheeriness of these flowers, so confident that they can meet their own needs and those of the world around them, brighten my day.

In the meantime, winter squashes, a late crop of paste tomatoes, and apples beckon from my mother’s favorite local farm stand and have me cooking up marinara and apple butter to nourish my family over the winter while my mother recuperates. These crops will provide sustenance beyond their nutritional output, for, as the house fills with the scent of garlic and nutmeg and allspice, my mother’s spirits rise and her appetite builds. This harvest, like the images of flowers and seeds out in the prairies and woods, gives me and my mother something to strengthen us, just like the squirrels and Fred: the ability to take what we savor in the present and carry it with us into the seasons ahead.

These zinnias continue to bloom and set seed until frost.

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.


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