Autumn in the garden
When the world began to change, I bent my creaky knees and examined the strawberries.
Every autumn, without fail, they put out runners – long, whippy shoots that end in a node. The nodes eventually develop their own roots. If you guide those roots to soil or potting mix, you get a new plant.
In autumn, strawberry patches become a mat of horizontal connections.
In the right conditions – which rarely exist in my tiny, light-challenged backyard – a strawberry plant might put out 50 runners, robbing the mother plant of strength but creating a burst of new life. Once the new plant is established, the connections wither.
This is just one exemplar of what gardeners know as the autumn rush – the last push towards growth and life after the strain of summer and before the cold descends.
This year, I took particular care with my runners, guiding them all to a safe harbour. When things are hard, when you are scared, it helps to observe things up close – to concentrate very hard.
And so I looked – really looked – at the leaves of the strawberry plants. Of course, they are green. But they also aren’t. They are umber and almost blue in parts, and yellow on the edges, and sometimes there is a touch of red. I stroked them, coaxed the roots to the earth and took a little comfort.
As well, I sacrificed some space on my small sun deck to a new planting box laced with lettuce and radish seed. I got serious about a long-term scrappy attempt to keep the possums off the lettuce. I had been meaning to put the plants under nets for ages, but hadn’t done so out of laziness and because I don’t like the look of the nets.
Now the possums are excluded, and more food is growing in my backyard.
There are other viruses I need to take seriously. I planted a fig tree in a big pot two years ago. I have yet to harvest a crop. It has fig mosaic virus, which makes the leaves mottle and the fruit fall before it has ripened.
According to some, if you prune the tree hard, the virus improves – there is no cure. So far, that is what I have done. Perhaps if I were serious, I would rip the tree up, dig out and dump all the potting mix – more than 100 litres – scrub the pot with hydrogen peroxide and start again.
So far, I haven’t done this. I am nesting, bulwarking myself against the outside world, but not yet believing that the horizontal connections between me and my community will wither. If I need figs, I can buy them. And who, after all, really needs a fig?
Autumn is a sad season. Once the harvest festivals are over – the pumpkins pulled from the withering vine – we begin the descent to the darkest time of the year. Autumn is about remembrance, beauty and an awareness of the cycles of life. It is about a reckoning with mortality.
I am feeling not so much panicked as sad – for the lives that will be lost, obviously. For the unimaginable strain that will be visited on some. And for the way of life that has been lost, for the unwanted changes and for the pulls and breakages on those horizontal connections – the families who can’t see each other face to face; the communities that prove not to be communities but only societies.
Did we realise what we had, before we lost it, before the leaves began to fall, and we put normalcy to one side? People say they are stressed. I think we are in the first stages of grief.
The garden provides, if not solace then the foundations for thought. It teaches that death is always with us. There is the dead rat in the compost heap. The parsley that seeds itself and withers. The mother strawberry plant.
At the end of last year I left a secure, well-paying job.
A badly timed move, perhaps, but it was driven by a sense, after several deaths in the family, of time as the most important resource and my own position at 59 years of age. An autumn flush, perhaps, if I am lucky.
A few people have been quoting C. S. Lewis’s famous essay on living in the Atomic Age, published in 1948. He asked, how are we to live with the new awareness of mortality? “Why, as you would have lived in the 16th century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
But we are living not so much with an awareness of mortality as we are with a realisation of the fragility of the lives to which we have become accustomed – our fond habits and verities, which, it turns out, are vulnerable. We mourn the death of who we thought we were.
And I find myself examining the garden in autumn with unusual intensity.
There are the soothing rounds of gardening tasks. You will find them in any book, on any gardening website. Sow the seeds of broad beans, lettuce, onions and peas. Transplant your evergreen shrubs and small trees. Take cuttings. Pot up your new strawberry plants.
Plant spring flowering bulbs. Because spring will come, however it finds us, and few things repay close examination as much as a newly unfurled daffodil – that burst of yellow on a slim, sappy stem.
The green of the stem is topped with a brown papery sheath, like a reverse dunce’s cap. Then there is the yellow canopy of six petals, each with a shading of green at the base, and the tops slightly curly, like a newspaper just unrolled. Inside the cylinder are the sexual parts of the daffodil there for all to see, the furry stamen and pistil reaching up and out in the hope of gentle touch.
I will cut the first daffodil of the season and keep it on my desk. Daffodils are uniform, and bright as paint. A fitting subject for an Andy Warhol painting, repeating and repeating and repeating. No plant has been worked on by humans as much as the daffodil – the wild Spanish plant bred into uniformity.
Although there are different types – King Alfred, hoop petticoat and so forth – they are alike within each variety, which is why we plant them in drifts and groups, bright and breezy and predictable.
Yes, plant daffodil bulbs, because you just know they will be with you in spring.
Daffy daffodils. They open themselves to light and sun and rain, exposing their innards, advertising their vulnerability with a splash of colour.
I am not sure whether it is a celebration or an act of defiance. Spring is here, they will tell me. Whether you want it or not. Hope springs eternal, and all that.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 28, 2020 as "Garden sobriety".
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