Autumn Daze: September in the garden

Posted by Glennis Byron on September 7, 2022

Main photo: Adam Ross

this is the season of lists and callow hopefulness; hundreds of thousands of bewitched readers are poring over their catalogues, making lists for their seed and plant orders, and dreaming their dreams.

Katherine S. White, 'A Romp in the Catalogues', The New Yorker, 1958

It's September and there's a change in the weather here in Victoria, cooler nights, shorter days. Phlox and snapdragons - astonishingly - still hang on and the roses are having a last hurrah, but the stars have become the asters and zinnias and sunflowers, all of which speak loudly of autumn. Everything seems to be slowing down in the garden and I've been enjoying this immensely.

Hazaster 'Hagan Light Blue': a lovely flower for cutting

Back in Menorca, the island off the coast of Spain where we lived for twelve years, I used to dread September, a month when, for at least a fleeting moment, I always grew heartily sick of gardening. The garden would have been fried to a crisp by months of beating sun topped off by sporadic weeks of blasting winds. I'd just be back from my annual summer trip to Canada, jet-lagged and generally grumpy. Weeds would be running riot; prize plants gasping their last. A conga line of sawfly would be sashaying through the roses. Or mealy bug draining the life out of yet another overpriced Mandevilla. Or both.

And there would be no reprieve in sight: temperatures would soon drop, the rains would come, and the garden would revive. Gardening in Spain is not for slackers. Well-planned, the Mediterranean garden has no dead period. Certainly not in autumn. If the start of the gardening year in Southern Europe can be pinpointed, it's the time when the autumnal rains begin to stir those dull roots that have gone dormant during the summer drought, the time when the Bermuda buttercup pops back up to turn the Mediterranean yellow once more. This is the time for planting trees and shrubs, leafy vegetables, root crops, peas and sweet peas and so much more, for sowing annuals directly in the garden and perennials in trays.

I used to look back with longing to the British autumn, that season, as John Keats would have it, of 'mists and mellow fruitfulness'. My prosaic side might have reminded me that - in central Scotland at least - this involved not being able to see five feet ahead when driving to work and wasps in the late plums. But my nostalgic side would remember walks in the woods with the smell of fallen leaves crushed underfoot, the fiery reds and golds of the trees, the reappearance of our blackbirds after the moult, picking blackberries in the hedgerows - at least until September 29, when the devil spits on them and makes them inedible. Most of all I would look back with longing to that time when we started to put the garden to bed.

Putting the garden to bed. Time to take a well-deserved rest, to sit snugly by the fire, listening to the wind and rain, planning endless hypothetical gardens, dreaming about spring projects, safe in the knowledge that you don't have to lift a finger ... or a spade .. for a little while.

Sunflower 'Vanilla Ice' signalling the end of summer

After all those years in Menorca, I'm very aware how precious is the opportunity to pause and reflect and so happy to take advantage of this once more. As Michael Pollan observes in Second Nature (perhaps my all-time favourite book), this opportunity is as vital to the garden as 'water and humus and sunlight'. It 'rejuvenates the garden, importing the fresh genes and novel combinations that each year make it new.' Without it, we simply repeat what we know has worked before: gardening is easier, but the garden becomes dull.

So here's to enjoying autumn and sitting back to pause and reflect, to assess what we have and dream of what will be: to pore over seed catalogues and dream of next year's triumphs. Granted it's rare to get an actual seed catalogue in the post nowadays, something I'm rather sad about, as I don't feel quite so bewitched when poring over a website. Still, there are some very tempting websites out there, and if you need further encouragement, these are three of the most tempting for those interested in growing flowers for cutting.

Canada: without a doubt, in terms of seeds, Stems Flower Farm has the very best selection. Their shop will open on 24 October 2022. It's a good idea to sign up for an account now and taking advantage of their Wishlist facility so you are prepared.

USA: Johnny's Seeds can't be beaten in the US and they will deliver seeds to Canada. There is a wonderful selection of cut flowers and so much information on how to grow them. While the growing resources are directed mainly at professional growers, they are still valuable for the ordinary gardener.

UK: Sarah Raven's website is truly wonderful, and even though she doesn't deliver outside the UK, I still find her website exceptional when I am looking for inspiration for new combinations in the garden.

The last gasps of my summer garden in Victoria

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