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The Self-Taught Gardener: Giving thanks

As we celebrate the season's bounty at our Thanksgiving table, our Self-Taught Gardener Lee Buttala is thinking about the alternative feast going on outdoors.

It seems fitting to celebrate a day of thanks in the fall. This moment allows us to look back at the growing season and to be thankful for all it has given us. This statement is true for most of us in the northern states because the bounty of the seasons is behind us, except perhaps for the fortunate few who are growing greens in a hoop house or who escape to the south to plant winter crops in their Florida gardens.

Thanksgiving is the last feast of the fall harvest – a meal of hearty winter squash and root vegetables and cool-season greens and brassicas that take on an additional sweetness with a touch of frost. As we sit down to this feast usually centered on that most American of birds, the turkey, another supper is taking place in our gardens. In this second repast, birds are a part of the feast too, but in a more active role, as they dine on the last of the ripening seeds and maturing nuts in our gardens before heading south for the winter. This time, marked by the shortening days leading into winter, teaches us a lesson about gratitude and how we are more thankful in lean times than in moments of excess. So, it is for this second feast and the seeds that remain behind, like the carcass of the turkey that will be transformed into soup to sustain us in the dark days ahead when food is less plentiful, that I am most grateful.

This compass plant, like the columbine, simply drops its seeds as it matures.

These nuts and seeds remind me of the cycles of plenty and scarcity that are a part of the lives of all creatures. And how, out of what remains behind, the world moves forward. The chestnuts and acorns that go uneaten will fall to the ground or be buried and forgotten by squirrels and come up in the season ahead to replenish our woods, like the oak seedlings that surprise me in spring, giving Fred and me clues as to where the squirrels stashed their stores last fall. The columbine seeds that the birds miss in their foraging will pop up in borders in early spring and start the cycle again. And the nut-brown seeds of milkweed and asters — attached to the silky pappuses that carry them off as the winter winds come up, dropping them where they will germinate and grow next season – will provide forage and habitat for butterflies and birds in the months and years ahead.

Aster seeds take flight, and they will show themselves in surprising locations throughout my garden.

I find that walks at this time of year, a time others often view as sleepy and sad, warm my soul. As I look at the mature seed heads of the plants that surround me, I sense the potential that each seed contains within its hardened coat. These seeds represent movement forward, a future that holds hope and promise, even as we enter the dark days of winter in a year when the coming season may hold impeachment hearings and primaries that seem to highlight the darker side of the world we inhabit.

The feathery pappuses of the milkweed plant enable the seeds to take flight on winter winds.

But I will think not of these darker moments as my niece sits down with us at Thanksgiving dinner to share the gender of her soon-to-be-born first child. Instead, I will think about the plants outdoors which make no such announcements (no aster has ever held a gender-reveal party to the best of my knowledge), but which will, six months hence, share their own progeny with us. I think of the seeds which sit quietly on the earth until the coming season when they will germinate and come forth into the world, resembling their parents but also each unique — like the snowflakes that will come down between now and their emergence­ next spring. These seeds will, just like my niece’s baby, be familiar in the most literal sense and somehow totally individual and filled with surprise, joy, and promise. For being grateful is not about looking back, but looking forward to warmer, plentiful times with a sense that the world, even in the darkest of seasons, has already planted the most important seeds of all: those of hope for the future.

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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