Celebrating the Garden in Autumn
“Wild is the music of the autumnal winds amongst the faded woods.” – William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)
This is the time of year when we can stand in our gardens, take a step back, slowly inhale the spicy fall air, and muse about how our gardens performed now that we’re putting them to bed. No matter what happened to the plants—(remember that very wet spring and seemingly endless summer drought and heat?)—we found many things to appreciate during the growing season.
Many vegetable gardeners boasted big harvests of beefy tomatoes. More children were helping their parents and grandparents in the garden. There was a renewed interest in victory gardens and attracting butterflies. And the demand for seeds for flowers and edibles left many garden shelves a bit bare this spring.
Gardeners can find much to be grateful for during the month when we celebrate Thanksgiving. November leads us deeper into autumn. It’s a good time to walk through the Chicago Botanic Garden, through your neighborhood, a local park, forest preserve, or prairie, or just relax in your backyard and appreciate the changing views.
"I see the turning of a leaf dancing in an autumn sun, and brilliant shades of crimson glowing when the day is done.” — Hazelmarie Mattie Elliott
Some oak trees are holding the last of their russet and burgundy leaves, but they’ll soon float down. The ground beneath maple trees has become a blanket of red and gold. Soon, these deciduous trees will be bare, dark silhouettes as we move toward winter, and they, too, will be starkly beautiful in their leafless state. Find a spot with large shade trees where you can look at them with the sun setting behind their trunks and branches. When the sky is clear at dusk, admire their sculptural effects, which often go unnoticed in summer.
Many crabapple trees hold onto their shriveled red and yellow fruits for a few more months, until the birds find them sweet enough to eat. After a freezing rain or snow, the berries are among the most delightful sights in autumn as icy droplets cling to each one. Keep an eye out for interesting fungi sprouting from dead branches. And, you may find velvety layers of dark green moss on stones or fallen limbs, peeking through a light layer of snow and fallen leaves. These are the sights that make us feel grateful for our connection to nature.
“I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.”— Nathaniel Hawthorne
Unlike gardeners who live in some southern and western states where the weather is constantly warm and the growing season is remarkably long, gardeners in the Upper Midwest can be thankful for the repose that autumn brings. No more weeding, watering, deadheading, digging, dividing, or fertilizing. No more humidity or drought. This is a time for reflection and gratitude for the gifts that nature readily provides us throughout the changing seasons.
There’s the pungent fragrance of fallen leaves, the low, soft angle of the sunlight, the migrating geese and sandhill cranes calling overhead—all of these things can give us a sense of pleasure and gratitude as our gardening tasks wind down.
"The tints of autumn...a mighty flower garden blossoming under the spell of the enchanter, frost.” — John Greenleaf Whittier
The first freeze, 32 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, usually occurs across the Chicago area in October, but that date varies considerably depending on the location. After a cold, clear, windless night this month, the last of the hardy annuals—marigolds, sweet alyssum, and pansies—will likely have a crystal dusting of frost on their petals. The flowers will perk up once the sun rises, but eventually, those plants too will head to the compost pile.
“I was born upon the prairie, where the wind blew free, and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures, and where everything drew a free breath."— Para-Wa-Samen (Ten Bears) of the Tamparika Comanches
This is the time to walk through a prairie like the Garden’s 15-acre Dixon Prairie. Illinois is home to less than one-tenth of one percent of original prairie lands. The Garden is grateful to have an opportunity to maintain this important ecosystem for visitors, students, and researchers, and especially for the insects, birds, and other creatures that rely on and support the 250 species of native plants there.
It’s November, but our gardens are not going to sleep. They are simply at rest until they are ready to greet us next spring. Nature offers an array of incredible scenes through every month of the year. Let us be thankful for this season of rest and reflection.
Nina Koziol is a garden writer and horticulturist who lives and gardens in Palos Park, Illinois.