Looking forward to that first really true sign of autumn…that morning I walk outside and feel the difference in the air, a bit cooler, maybe fresher from an overnight rain shower. Well, it finally happened….earlier this week it was 80° and this morning I can see my breath in the air.
As the days finally begin to cool down and daylight hours grow shorter, we begin to behave like squirrels, compulsively gathering, harvesting, nesting…our instincts from thousands of years of memories take over, guiding us toward all the measures necessary for ‘winter’ survival.
For many of us that translates into massive garden clean-up, raking leaves, harvesting and canning, scurrying around for bulbs to plant, seeds to throw out…and then suddenly we switch focus the cooler it gets. PANIC sets in as we realize that it is time to get the inside of the house in order for the holidays.
As the list of seasonal preparations grows, stress builds, headaches are more frequent, neck and shoulder tension builds. Pondering this yearly phenomenon, I recollect a bit of advice from my grandmother…” Take on what you know you can get done, Take time to do a job the very best you can and then take time to relax and be happy!” The older I get the more I realize the importance of her simplifying and prioritizing advice. Somehow, what NEEDS to get done will happen and I will stop feeling guilty about anything left undone.
I’ve learned to understand the importance of little moments of pleasure that keep me healthy and better able to cope…a mouthful of fabulous French chocolate, a glass of superb wine, a few hours of undisturbed reading, dancing on the patio, or just picking flowers…working in my garden also provides those moments of bliss, I find there is always something to make me happy. And now as dusk falls, I light a lantern and set some dried lavender sticks alight in the chiminea…and then just sit for a while in the chilling air… Sipping a glass of wine, I celebrate the time of harvest!
Early October…finally, a sprinkling of soft autumn rain refreshes the parched garden…misty drizzles through the trees soon turn to a mighty downpour that lasts for hours. A few days later the garden has responded to the rain showers and cooler temperatures with a flush of new growth and blooms.
Late afternoon on an Indian summer day…swallowtail butterflies float by gathering strength from nectar before landing on the parsley where they will lay their eggs…bees stay busy deep in the remaining nasturtium blooms.
As I wander along the stone path to the side meadow I find glorious autumn color that works beautifully with the planted areas full of purple-blue fall asters, rusty orange and golden yellow sunflowers, scarlet crocosmia, deep pink phlox interspersed with a crayon box of zinnias, a sea of towering verbena bonariensis, pink and white coneflowers, sedums, buddleia, and Japanese anemones mixed with meadow grasses and more…all plants that help create atmosphere and a sense of romance in the natural fall garden. At this hour, the setting sun drenches the area with a warm low light, imparting a rich depth and dramatic intensity to the blooms…
The fall patio changes with the season…warm colors, cool nights and candlelight…
Add plants with warm intense shades and arrange evergreens close to the walls again…a riot of reddish-orange touches create an exuberant sense of autumn… A rustic pitcher filled with golden sunflowers, a pot of red oak lettuce, and rich fragrant chrysanthemums mingle with bronze and green autumn ferns…
Bring in the chiminea and stack more wood for fires on chilly nights…hang a wreath of pine cones, seed pods and nuts and pull up a rustic chair for relaxing near the fire.
MAKE A NOTE…
Wednesday Mid-Month… This weekend I hope to finish planting the remainder of the garlic shipment that arrived last week. The forecast is for rain again and I’d rather plant when the sandy soil is moist rather than powder dry.
Aside from the usual work to be done, I take time to stroll through the garden assessing and evaluating areas that may or may not be working for me. I make notes in my journal to remind myself of what I want to add or change for next season.
*I realize now that the front bed by the porch needs to be expanded and edged in front of the wine bottle border with large flat stones to make a path to the side garden…and, I need to plant more shade loving perennials and move some of the struggling roses that don’t get enough sun. [The tree foliage has really grown.]The bed is a mass of blooms all summer but sunlight on the roses is now being blocked by the rapidly growing hydrangeas.
I also need to move the flowering almond closer towards the path edge in a more sunny spot to better enjoy the fragrant pink blooms next spring.
*Big problem…the stone steps in the back garden need to be reworked with larger stone slabs and some retaining rocks for when it rains hard and constant. The yard slopes slightly downhill so the water needs to be re-channeled. Maybe a dry creek bed would work…hm-m-m…like the one I designed and built in Texas!
*Another mistake…Last season I didn’t take enough time to sit and relax in the garden. I love the pleasures and pains of gardening, even the backbreaking digging. But when all the hard work is done for the day and it’s time to relax… well, I soon realized that I had not really planned for a spot, or spots, to appreciate the atmosphere and planting effects from different perspectives, at various times during the day throughout the garden: something I always do for clients when designing a landscape. Oh sure, it’s nice on the deck, patio or porch for morning coffee or outdoor meals, but that’s ‘hardscape’.
*I need to find a place for sitting quietly while observing and absorbing the blooms and fragrance all around me. This “time” replenishes my enthusiasm for the garden…all the while giving me the opportunity to think about new ideas. Glass of wine and folding chair in hand, I walk around the garden to test out a few possibilities…when it feels right I’ll know. Everything looks better with wine!
What makes leaves turn color? Changing color is a part of a leaf’s normal aging process…a part of its life before giving up the tree limb. When the green color disappears other factors take over. Genetics really determine a leaf’s hue and intensity of color. But the weather definitely contributes to the changing colors…yellow develops as days shorten, as long as there are no killing frosts and strong winds…red and purple show up best when warm, sunny days are followed by cool nights. If evening temperatures are warm through the fall, leaves turn yellow, but reds, purples, and oranges may be less brilliant.
HEAVEN SCENT…Watering my orchids this morning reminded me of something I need to start on …HOMEMADE VANILLA.
I like to make this for friends as a holiday gift. It is such a necessity in any kitchen and is so easy to make. Start with an array of small glass bottles or unusual jars…sterilized, of course. Simply put two split vanilla beans in each container, followed by some unflavored vodka filled to the top…I use organic vodka. Cap and store in a dark, cool place. Shake bottles gently every two weeks or so…wait about two months before using or giving. Add a nice label and pretty trim…voila! For a slightly different, more robust flavor, follow the same recipe but use a quality Bourbon instead of the vodka.
Vanilla is one of the world’s most prized spices? The vanilla plant, an ORCHID from the rain forests of Central America or the island of Madagascar, aside from its bloom is a rather undistinguished plant. The vanilla pods or beans are sweated or ‘cured’ in the sun to become the powerful spice that is the only source of true vanilla flavor.
There are plenty of impostors around…vanilla flavoring is chemically derived. An extract, on the other hand, is a concentrate of true vanilla preserved in a little alcohol or sugar syrup. Or at least it should be, check the label before buying. The best vanilla extracts are labeled Bourbon after the island of Bourbon in the Indian Ocean.
When buying vanilla pods I choose the moist, plump specimens, usually from a specialty food shop, and store them in a jar. They will last for several months this way or, I can store them in the freezer.
Another easy gift and treat for “sugar in your tea or coffee users”…I like to make vanilla sugar by simply adding a fresh pod to a jar of fine castor sugar…nice for sprinkling on fruit, custard desserts or in after dinner espresso.
If you are making a special custard or sauce you can increase the exquisitely delicate vanilla flavor by splitting the pod and scraping the sticky black seeds with the tip of a knife into the egg mixture.
Vanilla extract is used mostly in baking, custards and puddings, no matter what other flavors are used. It has a special affinity for eggy puddings and sauces…real vanilla custard is one of the greatest sweet treats in the world.
Real Vanilla Custard…or, Crème Anglaise
1 vanilla pod
4-5 organic egg yolks
1 1/2 TBLSP. vanilla sugar
16 oz. of organic cream or whole milk
Split vanilla bean and place it with cream in a saucepan. Bring to a slight simmer, but do not boil. Turn off heat and allow to stand for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks with the sugar. Bring cream mixture back to a slight simmer and pour in the egg mixture, stirring constantly.
Place the pan OVER a pan of barely simmering water. Cook, stirring frequently until the custard thickens…about 10-15 minutes. Pour into individual dishes and grate fresh nutmeg on top…my idea of heaven.
Golden Days, Fabulous Fall Gardening…our woodlands revel in their blaze of burnished colors…
Time to give the garden a head start for next year by following autumn’s golden rule: Clean up just a little after summer, enrich and mulch the soil, get organized and plant ahead.
To a gardener this time of year is anything but dull. All those richly colored leaves should be raked off the lawn and put into leaf mulch piles or shredded and turned into the compost pile…DO NOT BAG LEAVES AND PUT OUT FOR TRASH PICKUP OR TAKE TO DUMP STATION…USE THEM, MOTHER NATURE DOES!
Garden Alchemy…You can start a compost pile anytime but I think fall is best because Mother Nature provides us with lots of free carbon in the form of leaves. Start with a space at least 3x3x3 for making your compost area. I like to have three of the 3×3 spaces either in a row or my favorite way…a cloverleaf shape…to make my compost area. Ok, more info on this simple task in the COMPOST section of my book.
As I tidy up some areas after the summer season, I prepare the garden for next spring. Plants that have finished blooming can be cut down, although I prefer to leave most of mine as cover and seed heads for the birds, ladybugs and other gardener’s friends.
Best Time…Now is when I plant hardy cool season annuals and biennials such as: hollyhocks, foxglove, English daisies, primrose, pansies, violas, poppies, dianthus, calendula, snapdragons as well as spring and early summer flowering bulbs.
Also, I toss out seeds now for best early spring germination: poppies, nigella, larkspur, hollyhock, borage and even some old-fashioned sweet peas.
Feeding the soil in the fall and winter gives the microflora time to break down the organic matter into humus, making the nutrients available to the plants when they are ready to use it in the spring…
MEANDERING…’Bulbs’, corms, rhizomes of all shapes…plan and order NOW for fall to spring planting…
*Tulips are usually considered annuals here so I prefer to plant the small species variety that will return every year
*Narcissus or Daffodils are easy to grow and naturalize, I try to plant early, mid and late season bloomers of all shapes, sizes and colors
*Crocus, muscari, hyacinth and snowdrops…I can never have enough of these dainty, early spring bloomers…I can plant these now
*Scillia peruviana…unusual, deep blue blooms for mid-spring, lovely mixed with Summer Snowflake…
*Charming little Chinese Ground Orchids are easily grown tubers with purplish blooms in early spring…plant with small ferns in a shady spot
*Candy or Blackberry lilies for mid-summer zip in a variety of colors
*Iris of all types will bloom from early to mid to late season and some will re-bloom in the fall
*Crocosmia for deep red end of summer fire…and “Naked Ladies” too!!
*Gladiolus…plant corms every 2 weeks from early April to late May to insure continuous summer blooms…glads have much more impact in the garden if they are planted in a good size grouping
*Oriental lilies…deliciously fragrant summer bloomers…and so easy!
*Summer blooming Crinums, Madonna lily and more later…
Mums the word…as daffodils are the gardener’s harbinger of spring, chrysanthemums are the heralds of fall. With colors as rich as the fiery fall foliage of the trees and as pure as the crisp autumn air, spicy fragrant mums are a nostalgic part of the finale, for some, of the gardening year.
Many gardeners treat mums as annuals…rushing out to buy pots of these beauties to place by the front door and about the garden.
For me, instead of tossing them when they stop blooming or get too dry, I find a spot, cut them back and plant them in the garden…treat them right and you’ll never have to buy mums again. A word of caution…don’t buy and plant too early, wait for cool days and longer nights…mums are light sensitive.
A change of scene…open your eyes and look around the yard. Gather nature’s treasures for the bouquets of autumn…lush displays of vines, leaves, gourds, flowers, fruits and vegetables. I like to group or cluster them in free-form arrangements for bright spots of color amidst a selection of fall leaves.
I choose plant holders with rustic charm: for gold mums, a worn blue coffee tin wrapped in ivy; a copper watering can for sunflowers; a wooden trug to give gourds, Indian corn, rose hips and berries a home; russet mums and vitex in a carved out pumpkin; cranberries, popcorn and apple disks for a birdhouse necklace…just be creative and have fun!
LEAFY PROMISES…fall is the best time to plant trees and shrubs. With soaking rains, cool nights and still very warm soil, my plants will quickly make new roots before cold weather sets in, roots that will be better able to support new growth when leaf buds open in the spring.
When choosing to plant a tree, I suggest a 2” caliper or less. After many tests with different size trees, I have found that a 2” tree will outgrow a 4” caliper tree in two years. There really is no reason to plant big, other than a certain ‘landscape immediate gratification’, or to go to the considerable extra work or expense of buying a LARGE tree…be patient! With this in mind I head out to the nursery to find a container grown Japanese maple that will add a fiery red leaf color to the semi-shade garden in the back yard.
NATURAL HEALTH…Around this time of year, some of my friends complain that they often feel lethargic late in the afternoon, especially with the decrease in daylight hours…so, I tell them to boost their energy levels naturally:
*have an apple or a banana instead of chocolate for an energy fix, either has fiber and natural sugar which creates sustained energy release, and will help boost levels of mood changing hormone serotonin
*take a walk in the chilly air, a brisk walk affects hormones that control energy levels…as does exercising releases the “feel-good” endorphins
*go to bed and get a good night’s sleep and, get into the habit of going to bed and getting up at the same time…also, some warm milk and honey with a handful of walnuts will help you fall asleep more quickly.
WHAT’S IN A PHRASE? “by hook or crook”
This expression relates to one of the earliest tree protection ordinances, under which peasants in England were restricted by the King from gathering any more firewood than that which was lying on the ground or could be reached by a shepherd’s crook.
At this time of year, everything in the garden is about harvesting and preserving where a few weeks ago all was rampant growth. Autumn mornings call up all the seasonal tastes that go so well in its company…chestnuts, walnuts, mushrooms, smoky bacon, apples and warm spices. In the crisp light of autumn, golden pumpkins glow with the sunshine they absorbed during long summer days. Like little orange suns fallen to earth, they mark the change of seasons.
Equipped with a big basket and sharp clippers, I set off into the woods with my Border Collies, hoping to gather branches of berries and burnished leaves. LATER…Feeling a warm glow of satisfaction…I had collected a basketful of the bounty of the season, richly colored leaves, bright berries, some large acorns and had enjoyed a robust walk through the serene woods…I returned to the house. There was still much to be done…I have a strong sense of new beginnings each autumn and all that I achieve in a year is what I actually began the previous September and October.
Hallows Eve, Last Night of October…Late afternoon sun drenches the garden with a warm light, imparting a rich depth and dramatic intensity to the flowers, while casting long shadows across the yard and illuminating the tops of the trees. As dusk descends, the mysterious scents of elaeagnus, roses and sweet olive mingle and fill the air…the only sounds to disturb the perfect early evening stillness are the low warblings of the guineas starting their roost for the night. Later, down in our woods, the solar lanterns begin to twinkle along the driveway. A ring of stones circles the fire, throwing flames into the chilly night air. Candle lanterns pick out a path to the back porch, the fire pit and our Hallows Eve Party. Food is laid on the table…the stage is set! The last night of October is ‘the night of all witches’, and a few that I know celebrate the end of the fall harvesting on this night. Long ago Christian churches transformed this night into ALL HALLOWS, the night before November 1st or ALL SAINTS. Something of the ancient ways lingers in my heart and I’ve prepared a comforting seasonal meal for the spookiest night of the year…to enjoy with a few friends.
There are freshly roasted almonds, pecans and pumpkin seeds…with a sprinkle of cumin and sea salt…to nibble with hot spiced wine by the bonfire. The dinner menu is equally simple…Croque Monsieur, kept warm wrapped in cloth napkins, and mugs of steaming, fresh made tomato soup topped with chopped basil and thyme…satisfying and easy to eat while sitting around the fire. And later, for something sweet…just picked figs stuffed with mascarpone cheese, a splash of brandy and chopped walnuts along with fennel shortbread still warm from the oven…the delicious magic of Hallows Eve. Great friends and good food made a lovely fall evening we’ll long remember.
Year follows year at such a galloping pace these days…many traditional seasonal celebrations fall by the wayside. Slow down, look around at nature’s changing face and celebrate what each season has to offer, whether it be a walk in the blue bell woods, a midsummer’s eve garden party or a bountiful harvest supper.