September Renaissance

Unbidden Garden Pleasures

It never fails to surprise. Come September I fall in love with my garden again.

Spring is always first love, probably is for most gardeners, new and tender, impatient, welcome after a raw winter. Then sun-dried summers stress plants and bring their share of lovers’ quarrels.

It is September, after the garden and the gardener have mellowed, that brings reconciliation and joy.

We know autumn if here when mushrooms begin to pop up in the garden

The sun still looks like molten steel at midday, but it has slipped some, and crisp deep shadows shift among plants. A hint of tang comes through on damp, cool mornings, and plants respond casually, with tufts of growth here and there, though proud grasses beam in the sun and bumptious sprays of goldenrod give charm to roadsides.

But change is coming, change that spurs a-hurrying of life.

One sunny day, blue mist ageratum leaps into bloom. Yes, literally, leaps. It’s been a bother all season, weedy seedlings in spring and rangy lay-abouts all summer. Most gardeners wouldn’t put up with such shenanigans and every year I vow to take drastic action — tomorrow. Is their barely-month-long bloom really worth five months of tangle?

Blue mist ageratum with its fuzzy flowers is aptly named

By the time that hazy sky-blue wave cascades through flower beds in September I have my answer. I’ve completely forgotten that once I vowed to exorcise them from the garden.

It’s not just the blooms, though. It’s the visitors that come. Hundreds of them, insects — the kinds I like: wasps that fertilize flowers, and skippers, butterflies, bees– all having a marvelous time in the sun, testing and flitting, tasting and sipping, testing and flitting, and, incidentally, mating.

Fiery skipper pauses for a drink during a quiet time

I instinctively dodge as they weave around me when I jostle plants. They don’t waste a minute settling back down. Do they sense that it’s only her going by, the one with empty threats?

There’s more to September than bloom. The other day a scattered flock of warblers drifted in (if warblers can ever drift), hushed, except for subdued location chips, to case the garden for a few days.

They seemed to use a tattery swamp dogwood as their anchor. It’s a spreading, gnarly, multi-trunked tree, a one-of-a-kind, since its sisters in swamps are usually stunted from crowding and competition. It should be a standout now with ripening berries, but bugs like the leaves in fall, and, since warblers like bugs, they are scouting for bargains here.

It’s hard to pin warblers down. Warblers must be in some avian ADHD category, but I managed to spot. . .

Male redstart warbler. Wikipedia photo

. . .a redstart (how could I miss this warbler with its true Halloween colors, or its black-cat- yellow-eyes variation?)

Yellow-rumped warbler. Photo by Brian Sullivan

. . .a fleeting myrtle warbler (called yellow-rumped now by everyone but me. Who in the world came up with such a prosaic, unflattering replacement?)

Prothonotary warbler, plumage colors muted in fall. Photo by Rob and Ann Simpson

. . .and maybe a prothonotary warbler (resident nesters one summer, but conned into raising a cowbird instead, from an egg deposited by a burly mother.)

The sulfurs have been chasing each other for over a month now. They love red flowers, as do the Monarchs in fall. They all used to devour pineapple-sage nectar, but the plants are gone now, casualties of a couple of overly wet winters. These September days they skip from Turk’s Cap mallow to salvia guaranitica ‘Black-and-Blue.’

Salvia guaranitica blooms from late spring through fall

Right on schedule, rarely missing a mid-September visit, comes the Red-Spotted Purple  butterfly. Satiny blue, shimmery wing scales blend to drabber wing tones with a painter’s masterly touch.

Red-spotted purple, one of the Admiral butterflies. Photo by John Morgan

It’s easy to miss those tiny nail-polish red spots as I follow the butterfly’s low-flying trail to a starry goldenrod. Its host plant is wild cherry, which manages to find a toehold here, but I’ve never noticed the lumpy-looking caterpillars in spring.

For all the hurrying, there is peace in a September garden. If we’re not looking, we may trip over a wandering box turtle. There are four or five of them, but they don’t congregate at the informal feeding station near the porch any more. Long ago (August) we devoured the last of the large, luscious canteloupes from Rocky Hock, and the turtles have no more rinds to nibble.

One way to get around. Mating done, he’s gone. (Summer photo)

Our resident birds take full advantage of this lull between seasons to sample seeds or berries or insects off-guard. I leave seedheads of toppled green-eyed coneflower and phlox for their dining pleasure, but I pull perilla, in spite of, or maybe because of, its abundant seeds that beget unruly truants that edge out innocent plants wherever they find a toe-hold.

Aster tataricus with moudry grass, a native, both seed freely

The bright red male cardinal and his mate poke among shrubs, occasionally testing out a tune, but usually we see him before we hear him. The wren can fling out a rouser, and the thrasher may peal off some fancy mimicry, or, abruptly, the yellow shafted flicker may rend the air with raucous laughter.

Later in the season, we may spot the cardinal in among sparkleberry, shown here, or native American holly

Otherwise, September is quiet in a hurrying sort of way.

Yes, I love September. Even when September dips back into August, as it has this year, and rain refuses to give the garden a bath, and I have to drag the hose around while shriveled brown crepe myrtle leaves litter paths and the tulip tree I planted as a seedling thirty-three years ago defoliates on our lawn, and ferns brown and hydrangeas wilt.

When tea scale blights camellia leaves and lace bug stipples azalea leaves, and deer come out of the woods to devour mounds of hosta ‘Honeybells,’ and the hawk swings low in the sky, hunting, I still love September.

Here are some of my photos from Septembers present and past. I hope you enjoy them.

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5 Responses to September Renaissance

  1. Linda says:

    Being able to spend time in the garden now that the weather is cooler is great. Watch out weeds, here I come.

  2. tonytomeo says:

    So, you have two gingers! I have none, but I will eventually get at least one. I must find the right one thought. I have not seen it in years. I don’t know if the original colony is even where it was back then. Is the white ginger in your picture the butterfly ginger?

    • The white ginger is hedychium coronarium. It is highly fragrant, like a gardenia, and because our soil is so moist where we grow it, it gets to about 8 feet and tends to flop over when it is in full bloom. I had not heard of the term “butterfly” ginger but I understand that the flower looks a bit like a butterfly, thus in some areas of the country it is called butterfly ginger. Note the different shape of the flowers in the two pictures: the white is ball-like while the peach is spike-like and has, to me, a more attractive seed structure but is not fragrant.

      • tonytomeo says:

        Yes, I remember that from them blooming down south. All of the gingers that I know here have those bottle brush shaped trusses. They really are nice, but I would still like to grow the white one from down south.

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