An Autumn That Brings the Garden to Life

HOUZZ September 25, 2021


An Autumn That Brings the Garden to Life
There was a time in my gardening life when autumn was about despair and resignation. The glory of flowers and wildlife sprinkling color through my beds was shattered, then worn away, and all I was left with was decay that needed to be cleaned up. I didn’t see that an autumn garden is about renewal and hope, a musky joy in the impending winter. Autumn is necessary — and autumn is incredible.
All photos show the author’s native garden in Lincoln, Nebraska.


Now each August I look for the early signs of what’s my favorite season: little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) flashing diamond-like seed heads in the lowering summer light, and stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) developing buds from deep within the upper leaves.

The flowers of purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) may be long gone, but soft cylinders of bronzy-silver seed heads take their place and float like driftwood among the thin leaves of sedges (Carex spp.) and bunchgrasses.


Through September, I watch the asters for insects, bugs and even spiders nestled in the blooms. All manner of species migrate through or store food and fat reserves to hibernate over winter. Even ruby-throated hummingbirds come to enjoy the blue sage (Salvia azurea), sometimes hovering in front of me with what I imagine is a nod and a wink.
Toward the middle of the month, the monarch butterfly migration peaks when every smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) and New England aster (S. novae-angliae) is a cornucopia of action like some international airport hub.
Deep into October, the last stragglers of a full season are busy at work: large milkweed beetles gorging on milkweed seeds still in their pods, as shown here; male bumblebees enjoying the last days of their life on the blooms of aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium); and a few female yellow garden spiders working their webs just above those aromatic asters, the silken circle shrinking by the week.


Out in the nearby prairies, I take inspiration from the tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum), Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), noting how these three aggressive species work in balance to keep one another in check and provide one heck of a punctuation mark to the end of the growing season.

I ride the days down in the autumn garden, sitting on a bench as the sun slides behind the trees and the temperature drops 10 degrees Fahrenheit in 10 minutes each evening.


Consistent rains have returned to nourish the roots of perennials and shrubs that will carry them through winter, and a rich musk settles around the spectacular empty seed heads of Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) and pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida).

It’s this season that pierces the deepest, as it reminds me of being 10 years old, when my family moved from the South to the North in late summer. Those first days of autumn were raw, filled with fear and depression. But one day, while I was walking in a small wood of maple and pine, a skein of Canada geese brushed by the treetops without even a single call, just the rush of their bodies and feathers like a calming stream of fresh water.


It wasn’t until I started creating gardens — finding plants that bloomed in fall, showed off spectacular autumn leaf color or held fascinating shapes deep into winter — that I realized a seed had been planted in me when my life was the most vulnerable and uncertain.

And that’s what an autumn garden is — vulnerable and uncertain. Some of the plants may not make it to spring. The winter snows may not come to insulate plants or recharge the groundwater. I might have planted something too late or regret having not planted enough before the soil froze (I’m looking at you, liatris).

But it doesn’t matter. I have the whole winter to dream and plot, to salivate over garden books and catalogs, to take stock and rest in the joyful memory of a garden life well-lived. Autumn isn’t the end of something — it’s a spectacular beginning. The frosted flowers and empty spider webs are a testament to the faith we gardeners thrive on.

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