Sunday, November 01, 2015
What is fall? Every year I seem to hold a debate. Mostly with myself, I guess, but what is fall really? Is it the meteorologists’ tidy definition? September, October, November. Neatly ordered leaves falling from calendar on the wall. September 1, the first day of autumn. Whether the weather’s ready for it or not.
But, in reality, summer always hangs arounds for another few weeks. At least. Don’t put away your summer clothes and take out the sweaters in New York when a meteorologist declares it’s fall. It’s hard accepting temperatures that linger languidly in the 80s & 90s fahrenheit (25-35 C) as anything but full-on summer. This is not fall. Nope. Maybe the first of September slides in autumnally in Labrador but not here. Listen to the weathermen on this topic and you’ll be very uncomfortable in the City, I assure you.
If you’re going to simply tear off the seasons from a wall calendar, October, November and December make more sense. But then the weathermen have an issue with the cold of late December. I’m not so sure why, since they seem to have no issue with the heat of early September. The meteorological accountants can keep their calendar pages for themselves, I think.
Astronomers pin the start of fall to the autumnal equinox. That makes a lot more sense. By George, let the heavens speak! And September usually does exit a little cooler than it entered. But then again the end of the month is still not so much like fall than a still-mild summer. Highs may fall back from the 90s but, well, the 80’s aren’t really that fall like either. But it is a better start. If still a week or two early.
October’s when the seasonal action really starts, even if it can still get off to a little wobbly and indecisive beginning. But the weather’s definitely more like Autumn. The oppressive humidity that’s been riding up from the South now keeps its distance and the dew points drop. I usually tell friends to visit NYC from the middle of October. The winds dry and the air takes on a golden crispness. A lot of gardeners love the awakenings of spring. Maybe it’s what’s expected but I’ll confess I love the slow wind-down of plants in the fall. It’s my favorite season in the City.
The garden’s slowly changing. It’s only in the last week that leaves have started to drop in any significant number from the trees in the back neighborhood. Unfortunately, there’s nothing special in the immediate vicinity. I wish there were some of the spectacular scarlets and oranges and golds that shift in elsewhere. But the trees here are mostly just weedy seedlings of Acer saccharinum, the silver maple, that have sprouted up over the years and been allowed to grow through neglect. At best, these silver maples turn an uninspiring pale yellow still tinged with green as they drop. Sometimes there are hints of some deeper color, but that’s rare, and silver maples don’t do anything red or orange especially well. No, there’s little drama to these trees. Except when they drop branches. They’re a bit brittle and prone to that.
The other major denizens of neighboring yards are a cluster of tall Ailanthus altissima, the so-called tree of heaven, off to the western end of the courtyards. This species was introduced into the United States from China through Europe already in 1784. We have William Hamilton, a gardener of Philadelphia, to blame for that. It’s become very invasive because it’s a massive seed production and dispersal factory. An urban curse, it will sprout from any old crack in the concrete where a seed has lodged. Have the sheer face of a brick wall you want to use as a planter? No problem, Just wait for some Ailanthus to float in.
Ailanthus is also allelopathic, which means it secretes chemicals to suppress the competition. It will vigorously sprout witch’s brooms from its stump, if gets chopped down. For an Ailanthus, chopping down is simply a light pruning. It also seems to drink herbicides as easily as congressmen down cocktails on a lobbyist’s tab. All these charming aspects have landed this hydra tree of heaven on the noxious weed lists of a number of countries beside the US. And the more appropriate nickname of the “Tree of Hell”. Or worse.
Hard, double-winged samara seeds, singly or still hanging on their full, dried clusters of little seed bombs, easily blow over this way on the slightest breeze. They only arrive by the hundreds. Though it seems like the hundreds of thousands after a windy spell. Ugh. The leaves follow along merrily. It seems no accident that the Chinese refer to the tree of heaven as the chòuchūn, or “foul smelling tree” (臭椿). The name speaks through centuries of experience no doubt. Luckily my neighbors are a bit distant for that additional olfactory pleasure.
Needless to say, like the silver maples, Ailanthus altissima contributes little towards any longing for a more vibrant and colorful fall grandeur in my borrowed views.
Add a distant Norway maple, some birches, an assortment of undistinguished large shrub-like things, and a few other small tree-like things. There’s a note of dark-green contrast in a single spindly, etiolated fir struggling in the shadow of the dreadful Ailanthus. This poor evergreen seems to have come from someone’s misplaced attempt to recycle a living Christmas tree. Right thought, wrong place. Very wrong. And cruel. No scarlet and orange sugar maples in view. No oaks in burgundy red. No smokebush or ginkgos. No redbuds turn. Silver maples and Ailanthus. That’s about it.
It’s mostly yellows, golds and amber browns on my garden horizon in the fall. Oh well. Not what I would have planted for theatricality but it will have to do, and the pared-down scale does have a simple charm and gentle glow. I do get a bit more chromatic drama from the potted trees in the garden, though. And the fall flowers. The purple and amethyst toad lilies are putting on a exceptional performance right now. A natural in the golden reflections of the fall light. And I’ve switched out the summer coleus with pale lavender mums and a cast of frilled, purple cabbages. Then there are the double white camellias. White comes into its own in the warn light of fall. It glows.
And, of course, several fuchsias continue their colorful punctuations of the scene. Fuchsias love this cool weather. Most were born to it. They slow down but the diminishing length day doesn’t seem to affect a significant number of them very much. They just keep throwing flowers until winter tells them to stop and the potted ones have to come inside for safekeeping and hibernation. A few of the cultivars still tirelessly flowering include ‘Midnight’, ‘Alice Hoffman’, ‘Angels Earrings Cascading’, ‘Miss California’, ‘Blacky’, ‘President George Bartlett’, F. magellanica ‘Aurea’ and, especially, ‘Rose Fantasia’. Given enough time, I’m sure several others would join the come-back as well. I still see buds forming. ’Rose Fantasia’ has turned into my favorite of the season’s end. If not of the season. I think that one’s going into propagation, to be spread around the garden next year, when I get my “winter greenhouse” up and the plant lights running.
As for the calendar of the seasons, I think I’ve decided on a simple but cunning solution. Meteorologists take note. We don’t all have to be the same. From now on, winter will be confined to January and February. Spring will take place in March, April, and May. Summer will consist of June, July, August, and September. Autumn will be scheduled during October, November, and December. This will be the official New Yorker’s View the Seasons. There might be some overlap at the shoulders but it’s actually closer to my reality in the garden. I know it’s a little unorthodox. Some would say lopsided and lacking properly even quarters. But I was considering half-month segments, or resynchronizing the Seasons with the Heavens, so be grateful you don’t have to toss out any paper wall calendars to which you might still be attached.
Happy November 1st. Happy All Saints’ Day, Toussaints, Allerheiligen, Todos los Santos, or whatever else you’re calling the day. Happy happy!