It happened sooner than I was expecting. The seedheads and weeds were overtaking the garden faster than the late summer wildflowers could climb up and over them to crowd them on out. And the days were rapidly cooling. And getting shorter.
It’s fall. I don’t care what the calendar says. And things are dying.
As a gardener, I have mixed feelings about this time of year. Horticulturally, that is. My feelings for autumn otherwise are an unmixed vat of joy and relief, as I am pretty much the least enthusiastic cheerleader for summer you’ve ever seen. And now that I’m a runner, I’m even more eager to greet the frost with open arms. But a garden is a different thing. And it calls for a different response.
Most gardens, of course, are built for the summer months. Sure, you could create a landscape rich with mums and hardy foliage to see you through the cooler months, but even that is a stop-gap. A bandaid. Most of us will admit that this time of year is simply the end. When the magazines in the grocery stores start prematurely featuring pumpkins in their cover art, it’s time to go outside and Do Something About The Garden. Time to take it in hand, as my grandmother would say.
So that’s what I did today.
I started by just pulling a few of the wild daisy stems by hand, their blackened old heads bobbing high above grey, cobwebby stems. These came out easily from the loose, sandy soil. No struggle at all. And they were intermingled with great airy shoots of the one plant that I still wanted to leave intact — the wild baby’s breath that is only now bursting out into delicate, white song.
Once I’d cleared that tiny area of intermingled loveliness, though, it was time for the heavy artillery. Time to pull out the loud whirring device that knocks all stems flat in its wake. It’s sold under the name of “weed whacker,” but I am the kind of gardener who barely discriminates between what the world calls a “weed” and what I call a “welcome addition to the family,” so I don’t call it that.
I don’t know what I call it, but I don’t call it that. All I know is that I need it, this time of year.
And down they went, arcing row by arcing row. I did what I could to keep the baby’s breath free from harm, and I left the heather standing in its proudly defended corner, too. They’ll get their haircut come early spring. In the meantime, the heather, like the cheese, stands alone.
I’ll plant bulbs near the heather, in a month or so. Once things have settled down. After the last warm breath of summer has well and truly faded, and the windows are closed in the bedroom against the chill of the air.
Bulbs are also a thing that I need. I plant them every autumn; I consider them a down payment on spring. A promise to myself that there are more flowers to look forward to, more life on the other side of winter. And all winter long, I look at that corner of the garden, and think about the sneak attack spring that is lying in wait there. Like it’s a secret between me and the ground. No one suspects a thing!
I need to know those bulbs are there, somehow. And they, of course, need me to plant them. That’s how the whole system works.
So I whacked today. And my wildflower patch isn’t too terribly big, so it was only a matter of minutes before all lay flat and tidy before me. A few tiny orange butterflies fluttered anxiously about, wondering what had happened to the vast forest of leaves and branches that had sheltered them only moments before.
Fall. It’s a time of changes, you know. Of loss, if you really must know. And of clearing the way for the next thing to come.
We lost our cat last week. Amelia. Our girl cat, our last cat, the sister to the brother who passed away last fall. Satchel and Amelia. They were the cats of our youth, found abandoned in a vacant lot on the bad side of town. Our friend Colin, who worked in an organ factory on that bad side of town, scooped them up and brought them to us without a second thought. We had an old couch in that apartment, one we didn’t use. We turned it up on its end and made it into a low-rent kind of cat tree for them. That’s where they sat, perched high above the floor, at a human adult’s eye level, for those early years. House parties. Poker nights. The couch sat right next to the toe line for our dart board, and they’d get cuddles for good luck at every single turn.
That was seventeen years ago now.
Seventeen years, and those cats, saw us through more changes and upheavals than I’d care to recall. They were with us when we moved back to Cape Cod, with us when we were struggling to find friends here, with us when we finally got decent jobs and nice friends and spare time. With us when we started to travel for pleasure, leaving them behind in the care of my father or friends. We’d fret about them then, as a low-level hum in the background of our minds, as we wandered around in those far-off cities and towns.
It was always there, that low thrum of anxiety. Of knowing they were there, and that they needed us home.
Now we are planning a trip to England later this fall, and we will be spared that constant thrum of care. Spared the need to write out excruciatingly detailed instructions for their sitters. Spared the joyful welcome home when we finally burst through the door again, laughing and dropping luggage at our feet amid swirling curlicues of fur. Shivering, dancing with joy.
That trip is just over a month away now. I do need a vacation. I know I do. But for now, I wait.
I wait while I watch another autumnal robe drape itself carelessly over the trees lining the river by my home. I bend over in the setting sun and clear away cobwebby old daisies. I pull out the spent stems of my day lilies and stack them carefully in a pile behind the shed wall.
I am sparing the baby’s breath, though. The baby’s breath can stay. I bring some inside with me when I’m done. Tuck it carefully into a jam jar and set it high up on the mantle, eye level with a human, where the cool autumn air can come in through the window. Make it shiver and dance.
Bulbs will be planted and lay dormant until spring. Lilies will spread and run rampant next June. And right about now, I suppose somebody somewhere is noticing a cat will have kittens. And they’ll be needing a home.
And I’ll be needing them, too.
Image by Just a Prairie Boy.