Savour the sea­son

Don’t dread au­tumn; em­brace it, says To­vah Martin. In this ex­tract from her new book she cel­e­brates its sen­sory plea­sures

Garden Answers (UK) - - Celebrate -

There is a hia­tus in au­tumn that’s ideal for hon­ing your senses – be­fore the bulbs ar­rive, be­fore the rakes are mar­shalled, when it’s a lit­tle too late to put in new peren­ni­als but not yet time to start the clean up. Put your nose to the air to smell the tell­tale woodsmoke, go for a walk to find conkers or pick ap­ples. Some­times it’s blus­tery; of­ten it’s sweater weather. Au­tumn is the time when we com­mune with our land, re­dis­cov­er­ing the sheer glee of pot­ter­ing out­doors. But don’t daw­dle too long; there are chores to ac­com­plish. All I ask is that you don’t go blindly about your du­ties. Ev­ery­thing can be more mean­ing­ful if you do it with your eyes wide open. Or­na­men­tal grasses were al­ways on my radar, but they didn’t seem right for my de­cid­edly retro cot­tage. Then my friend, gar­den­ing writer Syd­ney Ed­di­son stopped by and pointed out that my lit­tle world lacked any sort of nod in the Poaceae di­rec­tion. “Plant Mis­cant­hus sinen­sis ‘Morn­ing Light’,” she said. “It shines against the late af­ter­noon light.” I went to the nurs­ery the very next day. My rea­sons for hold­ing grasses at arm’s length weren’t to­tally aes­thetic. I tend to avoid plants that re­quire a lot of ro­bust phys­i­cal in­ter­ac­tion, and grasses fall in that cat­e­gory. A few early brushes with foun­tain grass (Pen­nise­tum alopecuroides) ended badly. When they be­gan to grow scruffy I marched out armed with my trusty shovel to di­vide them up. A lengthy wrestling match en­sued un­til I called in a crew of mus­cle­men to elim­i­nate the plants per­ma­nently – their tena­cious roots plunged sev­eral feet down. So far, ‘Morn­ing Light’ has been a laud­able cit­i­zen. It plays well with oth­ers and hasn’t caused even a tinge of back pain. By sum­mer it has formed a nice tight clus­ter of pen­cil-thin, white-banded gray­ish leaves that dance when the cars dash past. When au­tumn fi­nally ar­rives it’s a slow drama as the tas­sels un­fold, then stand tall and wave at passersby

Put your nose to the air to smell the tell­tale woodsmoke

(an in­ter­lude that co­in­cides nicely with the town’s trac­tor pa­rade). Grad­u­ally, the whole she­bang blanches flaxen, catch­ing the sink­ing sun as it hap­pens ear­lier and ear­lier each week. The blades turn colour and some­how gy­rate with frosty weather – each corkscrew­ing blade cre­at­ing an artis­tic spin.

Colour­ful turn

The beauty of au­tumn lies not only in its fer­vour, but also in its syn­co­pa­tion of events. It strings you along. Each plant comes on­stage, pre­sents its colour­ful skit, then bows out. The am­so­nia and a few other long-winded per­form­ers re­main ra­di­ant over the long haul, but most of au­tumn’s per­form­ers do a flashier bit, then move on to the strip­tease in short or­der. It’s thrilling. The ex­cite­ment be­gins up high. As soon as Septem­ber melts into Oc­to­ber, the trees send out ini­tial hints about their in­ten­tions to go out in a blaze. From there, the slow-mov­ing fire ig­nites the shrubs. The sumacs are among the first to give no­tice, go­ing a riv­et­ing or­ange be­fore sum­mar­ily turn­ing an un­flat­ter­ing shade of brown-black. Re­move th­ese browned leaves im­me­di­ately, be­cause those sad rem­nants will hold on for dear life. Keep au­tumn up­beat by whisk­ing pro­tag­o­nists off­stage when they go bedrag­gled. The sumacs are fol­lowed by hy­drangeas bur­nish­ing bronze and yel­low, with sev­eral vibur­nums even­tu­ally chim­ing in to blush bur­gundy. A week later, the hy­drangeas will be drop­ping leaves while Am­so­nia hubrichtii slips into a fetch­ing or­ange out­fit. Un­der­foot, the gera­ni­ums have gone all fes­tive with or­ange and bright red leaves. When Hal­loween rolls around, the cer­cis has swung into ac­tion, de­cid­u­ous aza­leas are stag­ing their last hur­rah, po­ten­til­las are fol­low­ing suit, the Ja­panese maples are rag­ing, the spireas are join­ing in but rel­a­tively de­mure com­pared to the neon red of the moun­tain sumac (Rhus co­pallinum) – which trails other sumacs time­wise but ex­plodes with a colour that’s worth the wait. By end of Novem­ber the cir­cus is over and mov­ing

out of town, apart from a few Ja­panese maples that refuse to con­cede. The con­fetti of colour­ful leaves looks lovely un­til rak­ing re­al­ity strikes. Yes, you can chop them up and reap­ply, but a mess of huge maple or sy­camore leaves isn’t go­ing to lead to peace and har­mony with the peo­ple next door. The good news is that the au­tumn clean up sends you out­side at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals. Take the ex­cuse to rake, prune and groom to see up close what’s go­ing on. This is no time to leave town.

Most au­tumn per­form­ers do a flashier bit then move on to the strip­tease

To­vah’s home, Fur­ther­more, is in Con­necti­cut

Get up close to the con­fetti of colour­ful leaves

❤ Whisk pro­tag­o­nists off stage as soon as they look bedrag­gled

Riv­et­ing red Rhus co­pallinum is late, but worth the wait

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