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