How I admire the trees when they lose all ornamentation and stand stripped bare for the winter. I’d like to have that kind of strength when I get old, and not depend upon pretense for beauty.
Stark branches speak to many people of melancholy, but to me they speak of hope. The raw canopy of black veins against blue sky is mirrored underground by a network of roots. Trees can survive losing one third of their branches above ground because the real heart of the tree is hidden in the soil. When a woody plant looks dead, give it a little time. It may show signs of life in spring.
Fall is my favorite planting time, especially for woody plants. Many of my deciduous shrubs were dead sticks when I brought them home, and now they flourish. Garden stores reduce prices by 50% to 75% in the fall because the plants look terrible. If you know what plant you’re seeking or want to take a chance on something new, you can get a shrub almost for free.
This time of year any branches you’ve layered can be dug up and replanted to start new shrubs completely for free. I’ve accidentally layered many shrubs. Real gardeners do it on purpose. The technique is simply to bury part of a low-lying branch until it grows its own roots. You leave the end of the branch above the soil, first wounding the spot on the branch where you want roots to grow, and weight it down with a rock or something. Many months later, you get a free shrub. I didn’t do any of this; the branches layered themselves, and I now have Limelight hydrangea, Little Henry, and Diablo Ninebark to replant.
Fall is my favorite time to move and increase perennials. Perennials get dug up, roots divided, and plants put in better places. Sometimes I just dig up half the plant and leave the other half in the ground if it is in a good place. I’m not very careful about dividing. In fact I’m a clod. That’s why I divide mostly in the fall. Everything looks dead anyway, so the sad little divisions fit right in to the overall wilted, sagging look of the fall garden.
Also I move plants around capriciously. I like to think they enjoy the adventure of mobility. It must be like a carnival ride for them, getting moved, like riding a roller coaster. Very exciting. Fall is often rainy, and despite cold temperatures above ground, plants keep growing roots below ground where it’s warmer. They don’t need to put energy into making leaves or flowers, so all the energy goes into making roots for a good strong established plant before the demands of spring begin taxing them.
Planting in fall can be more relaxed and haphazard than in the spring. In spring, everything has to look good because there are people who just buy all those perfect cookie cutter annuals and make those of us who are actually growing plants look bad. In the fall, I can slap some divisions and baby shrubs in the ground, and any mess I make will get covered by leaves twenty minutes later. Awesome.
Sloppy gardening habits probably benefit plants more than delicate precision. New starts get to keep a clump of the old soil their parent plant was happy in, and leaves, leaves, everywhere leaves to tuck the plants in and make them cozy and well-fed. I keep all my leaves for mulch and compost. When I see the sere branches of the exposed trees, I see the old grandmothers of the garden, giving all those leaves year after year to help the younger, smaller plants grow up and thrive.
This fall marks one full year of absolutely no chemicals or fertilizers or pesticides in my yard. My shitty organic lawn is in fact no longer totally shitty. It’s quite green. It’s nice. Sure I’m a little anxious for spring and seeds and flowers, but I’m trying to stay present appreciating age and decay and leaves, and my lovely, green, weed-filled lawn.