BY MIMI HEDL
On warm autumn days, after freezes and temperature drops, the garden takes on a new complexion, one I haven’t seen for a year, one that startles me a bit, but like an old friend, soon I remember this face. The familiar gestures, dried stalks of once vibrant tomato plants, bean pods draped high up on the bamboo tepees, (so high I’ll need a rake to dislodge), and zinnia seed harbored inside seed heads that look utterly dead, remind me of other autumns. So many secrets these plants hold about water, disease and fertility. Like reading tracks in the snow, a seasoned gardener learns about her garden as she dissembles it.
As I fill the wheel barrow with compost, I add bags and baskets, bowls too, for seed or seed pods I want to save. It looks a little confusing, so many containers, and still I have to run into the house for pen and paper as the head gardener made a rule: EVERYTHING MUST BE LABELED. PERIOD. And I see her spying me with that look in her eye. She well knows how many times I’ve puzzled over a collection of seed I simply KNEW, positively, absolutely no problem, and didn’t take the time to label. Sigh…
I cut a few heads off each zinnia plant as many folks have requested seed and then said, “that crimson one” or “the white one”. I could do this, but in order to save a special color I’d’ve needed to bag the flower so it wouldn’t get cross pollinated. Needless to say, I didn’t, and will let everyone know they’ll receive a mixed bag and tell them what they need to do if they want a pure strain.
Soon I have a half-filled grocery sack, more seed than my friends and I could ever use. When I pull off a dried petal, the seed clings to that petal, stout and unbendable if viable. It looks like a witch’s fingernail to me. I will keep the bag by the heating stove so the seed heads dry out completely before I thresh.
I save more native flower seed than domesticated. My friends at the wild flower nursery will advise me ─ sometimes the seed and the chaff look indistinguishable ─ and a quick call to Mervin or Michael will enlighten me. What a treasure to have experts to consult and learn the tricks of threshing, scarifying and other secrets that ensure a new crop of plants.
Bean vines twine around the trellis in a counter clockwise direction, easily observable in the autumn, when my attention can focus on such details. I use my pruners to cut the vines every foot and then pull them around the bamboo. They curl in such a neat way I think of making a wreath with them, and then good sense takes over and I toss the bits in the wheel barrow. It takes time to clean one teepee but with sunshine and blue skies, the task feels perfect and the clean trellis beautiful, ready for next spring.
The barriers I had put at the base of each teepee to keep the rabbits from nibbling, also get rolled up, tied and stored in the hay barn. Pieces of bamboo, from short to long also go in special places. This year they went into tomato cages, placed around the cattle panel trellises, that act like bins at a lumber yard. Why did it take me years to see this obvious solution? And the long, long pieces of bamboo? They simply go on top of the bamboo arbors, something I couldn’t do when we built curved arbors. It’s such fun to see my workshop prepared for winter. I smile with delight and appreciation of good weather to do the fussy work.
Order and organization give me great comfort. I remember cleaning my mom’s herb and spice shelf when I was 13, in Mom’s dream house on Clark Drive. I put everything in alphabetical order, combining duplicates and feeling so proud of the neatness. I don’t know if Mom kept it in good order, but if she did, like the head gardener, she could go about her chores without pause, looking for one thing or another.
And it’s the way of the woods, of nature. Think of all the micro-organisms, the fungi busy assimilating the detritus on the forest floor. So many busy workers, keeping everything under control, in order, often without the cooperation of man. We know something has gone amiss when forest fires rage or flooding occurs. The universe is often described as an orderly, harmonious organism and I do my best to cooperate and learn from all the systems.
The garden clean-up takes days, even weeks as there are so many piddly jobs. Sacks and bowls of seed clutter the summer kitchen. Everything has to be protected both from rain and mice. Every day a good breeze blows, I winnow a few varieties, a task I love. I go into an area of the gardens where if I lose some seed, it will fall on welcoming ground. Cleaned seed. I find this as beautiful as the seed pods. Would you laugh at me if I told you I’d rather have a bouquet of seed pods than jewels?
For years, when we first came here, I couldn’t bear to toss all the seed pods in the compost and began to hang them in the house, on 10’ long strings, ten feet high, near the library, over the desk. I ended up with 12 strings, 120’ of seed pods, dangling seed pods. When I’d lay on the floor to do my stretches, I’d look up into my vision of the universe. When people entered the house for the first time, they were drawn to this display. They thought I was drying herbs and it was difficult to explain my passion, so I demurred and let it pass, smiling and nodding.
Several years ago, I sensed my mortality and the chores the kids would have divesting my life. I decided it was time to take down these dust collectors. Phew!! and what a messy job! My son-in-law, Kerry, would be appalled at the dust and I could just hear him gasp. I happened to meet an artist interested in paper making and other fiber projects. She and her boyfriend came and took all the seed pods, with gusto.
The last blooming plant in the fall gardens is shungiku, the garland chrysanthemum. One year I took a bag of the dried flowers to my Chinese acupuncturist. She told me that during the Cultural Revolution she worked alongside many other young Chinese, picking the flowers of the chrysanthemum. She smiled as she remembered. When I said, how tedious, as the flowers are the size of a small fingernail, she said, no, no, it was good, it was fun and a peaceful job, we sat on little stools, and she giggled. She humbled me and I vowed not to complain.
Parsley in one cold frame, German winter lettuce in another, and Cimarron in yet another cold frame mark my morning and evening chores. I open the lids on sunny days, and by 3pm, have them closed. I’ll harvest enough fresh greens from these simple boxes to keep chlorophyll on my plate in the winter. The color cheers me when the rest of my plate looks bland.
I’ve started putting socks around the bases of the fig trees. Last year deer positively girdled every sprout before I realized what was going on. So this year they’ll receive protection. I’ll even try using pieces of soaker hose I can cut and wrap around the lower section of the sprouts.
Mulching with leaves and straw comes next. I mow through all the leaves and empty the mower bag on the gardens. Once I cut down the asparagus fronds, straw will cover this bed, and like the garlic bed, will look like one prepared in heaven. Good night, I say to them all. I won’t desert you. I’ll come by to admire the silent work you do as snow flies and hibernation invites us all.