Summer becomes autumn

Mimi Hedl

This scene is repeated a hundred times at Strawdog Farm.

I know it’s going to happen. I’ve watched summer become autumn more times than I can believe, but still, every time, every time there’s an ending to what I’ve grown accustomed to, it feels like it’s never happened before.

Yesterday, the 3rd of October, I had the first fire in the heating stove, a date I record year after year. That night the temperature dipped to 39°. I wore heavy socks, a sweat shirt and sweat pants to bed. I haven’t abandoned the summer kitchen, the screened-in porch where I live in the summer time. That’ll happen when I can’t sleep because my brain keeps telling me I’m cold.

 I still want that gold star the Universe bestows on those who soldier on, believing that enduring the cold earns me a star by my name. I loved those stars in elementary school, gold, red, silver and blue and it still feels good when one comes down from the Universe. Plus, living on the porch, I have a kinship with the moon and stars, the wind and all the night sounds. Once I fold up my bed and put it away for the winter, I’ve said farewell to it all.

When I do give in and retreat to the house, the sequestered heat makes me feel cozy and loved. Deliciously so.  I may mourn the end of my adventures outside, but I feel grateful for a warm home.

 I mark the end of summer when the monarchs leave. I’ll watch their numbers grow from one day to the next when the asters begin to bloom in mid-September. I’ll see 20 monarchs, then 40 and suddenly the monarchs increase exponentially. They’re everywhere. I know some serious business goes down.

On the last day of September, hundreds of monarchs dipped into the asters. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to see so many butterflies bouncing from flower to flower. It’s a celebrity sighting. I called several friends to let them know the migration seemed in full force and to come. They said they couldn’t visit that day but would come Friday or Saturday. I told them I had no control of what might happen.

And sure enough, the next day the temperature dropped and the scores and scores of monarchs I saw bedding down in the red bud trees the evening before, disappeared. Just like that. I’ve seen a few stragglers since, but I imagine what I witnessed on that September day was the sign they were on the move, looking for a spot to lay more eggs for another batch of monarchs to continue the journey to Mexico. We’ll have more 80° days and 50° nights next week. I’ll be watching for stray monarchs but don’t expect to see any but those who tarried too long further north and now try to catch up with the swarm.

The thousands of asters on Strawdog grew as a tribute to these winged creatures until I realized how the many species of bees used them far more than the monarchs. The monarch migration may last a week, but the asters and other fall flowers continue to bloom long after the chilly nights and the departure of the butterflies. The many species of bees, less flamboyant and eye-catching, take over the task of pollinating and gathering nectar. As in the human world, it’s the quiet, more humble ones who do the work of keeping our lives organized and efficient, usually receiving little recognition. I will not be guilty of this in the future and will honor the bees as well as the monarchs.

The goldenrod, rich with pollinators.

My neighbor John came over today with a gift of paw paws. He kept looking at the flowers with a look of disbelief. I pointed out the bees to John, their pollen sacs or scopa and the color of the pollen. When he couldn’t find any pollen on the sacs of one bee, he looked perplexed. I told him that bee was collecting nectar. He was fascinated and we walked around looking at what seemed like one bee per flower, an astonishing quantity, doing their work quietly and diligently, filling the air with a sound only bees can make.

The abundant seed from the asters, well-fertilized, will drift into the 25-acre meadow below the homestead and, in time, that area will be a rich source of nectar and pollen. Some asters and showy goldenrods have already taken up residence there, close to the fence row. Every year more will appear, just like they did in the homestead, when I stopped mowing and let the natives come in.

Asters and goldenrod

When my partner developed Parkinson’s disease and could no longer do the mowing, I simply couldn’t take care of all the labors. I decided to mow paths wide enough to walk on and let the rest grow as it might. I had no idea then that a maze would be created. Now, some of the natives grow over 6’ tall. As I walk through the narrow pathways, the plants fall over on me and children literally get lost in the jumble of foliage. I remember Logan and Brady, my grandsons, yelling for help when they weren’t sure where they were.

I like to not look where I’m going and meander from one path to another, ambling about seeing interesting insects, trying to find the bird whose call I just heard. I’ll spot a poison ivy or bittersweet and mentally mark the spot for eradication duty. I notice plants I hadn’t seen before as the quadrants continue to develop character and they settle into themselves, “Oh look! A royal catchfly.”

Blue sage and sea oats

 Of course I lent a helping hand, transplanting asters, showy goldenrod, coneflowers and other natives into the fescue. The forbs slowly pushed out the fescue grass and asserted themselves. In ten short years, the homestead has gone from having maybe a hundred asters to so many I could never count them. It could’ve been the bad guys, like invasive thistles or Johnson grass, that some farmers I will not name let grow in their fields, instead of the beautiful asters. It’s truly a wonder to watch a field, a plot of earth return to native plants, as if they’ve waited patiently for just the chance to thrive. Stand back and watch it happen.

Before a hard frost comes, I’ll visit the gardens daily, feasting on the beauty. In the dead of winter as I look out, I find it difficult to remember what the gardens looked like through the growing seasons. Let them sleep. Let me rest too. Come spring, I’ll have that same sense of disbelief when suddenly the sleeping gardens come alive.

A Monet-like view of the garden

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