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The Self-Taught Gardener: The third movement

Our self-taught gardener Lee Buttala feels that the landscape has a sense of movement like a musical composition, and the music of fall is perhaps the most dramatic of all.

I always think that the landscape has a sense of movement, shape and form that makes me realize good gardening is like musical composition. This is most apparent in the fall, when sound, the final connection to music, comes into its own as a part of the composition. Music and gardening are wildly related art forms – each dependent on time, each filled with crescendos and movements slow and fast, loud and soft to convey their magic.

This fall, on morning hikes with Fred, as we continue to care for my mother after her hip surgery, the sounds emanating from the baroque fall landscape call to mind the seasonal masterwork of Vivaldi – from the rustle of shimmering leaves above our heads to the percussive crunch of fallen leaves beneath Fred’s padded toes. The season comes alive, and the colors that move forward in conjunction with the sounds remind me of the visions that fill one’s head while listening to music with one’s eyes closed. Somber browns and vivid reds give way to soft gold and purple tones, each taking its moment and enriching the composition as a whole, and linking with the sound of the season. The breeze takes on the sounds of the wind section of an orchestra, ranging from the soft sounds of a flute to the forceful roar of a trumpet.

Oaks shift color late in the season, heading from muddied greens to scarlet in the final movement of the fall.

The colors, too, seem to have a soundscape all their own, with the shimmering pink tones of the invasive burning bush starting the season like the sound of a cymbal being lightly brushed, followed by a full-on clash that comes on as the softer tones turn vermilion in the later part of the season. I love this foliage as it transforms from mellow to strident, but I also expect to hear from a particular reader who will reach out to tell me that this plant is taking over and needs to be removed from our gardens and landscape. The reds of sumac in fall make a fine substitute for this foreign invader, if you happen to heed this advice, but I must say that, in these few weeks, burning bush reminds me of a misbehaving child that is doing something charming and horrible at the same time. For a brief moment I am taken in by it, before, that is, I begin to get concerned as its fruits set seeds that will cause it to take over more of the forest in the years ahead.

The timing of coloration of different species provides a musical quality in the fall garden.

The transitions of other leaves move temporally and musically as well. Scarlet oaks turn soft brown-green days before taking on cabernet tones, and some leaves such as that of the double-file viburnum appear to move forward unchanged, until frost turns their dark green leaves the deepest of purples. Each season I promise myself that I will catalog and calendarize the transmogrifying colors, pattern and timing of these changes, memorializing them in some manner so that I can hum their tune in months to come, only to find myself so caught up in the glory of the music and that season’s performance of this third movement, that it is already over before I reach for pen and paper.

Some trees have seeds that ripen and fall as their leaves take on fall color.

For one brief moment, I realize that such note taking is neurotic and unnecessary, and some of the best music can be performed simply by letting nature take its course.

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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