Thursday, November 22, 2012


              “November is the most disagreeable month of the year,” says Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Jo obviously didn’t live in southeastern North Carolina. Shivery mornings warming to open-window afternoons, nights when you seriously consider turning on the heat, the oblique angle of the light—all these combine to reinvigorate the summer-weary, plants and people alike. A fragment from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Day in Autumn” comes to mind:
                        After the summer’s yield, Lord, it is time
                        to let your shadow lengthen on the sundials
                        and in the pastures let the rough winds fly.

                        As for the final fruits, coax them to roundness.
                        Direct on them two days of warmer light
                        to hale them golden toward their term, and harry
                        the last few drops of sweetness through the wine.
                                                                (translated by Mary Kinzie)

            Rilke would not have been impressed if he could see me this chilly morning, huddled on the screened porch, wrapped in baggy pajamas, ratty cardigan and ancient wool socks, cradling my hands around that first life-renewing cup of coffee. I’m looking out at the weed-choked, heat-exhausted, wind-tattered remnants of my garden. It’s been lackluster all season, in performance as well as appearance. I know why, of course: the bustle and brio of spring gave way too soon to the stultification of high summer. The heat got to me, draining away all ambition. I neglected the garden, cultivating only air-conditioned spaces, lying fallow.

            My thoughts turn to the virtues of fallowness. It was common practice in old-fashioned sustainable agriculture, before the advent of agri-business conglomerates and faster-living-through-chemistry lifestyles. Wise stewards of the land fallowed one-third of their fields each year, honoring the benefits of regular extended periods when no marketable product is expected, letting the land lie quietly, recharging. Up north, rock-solid frozen ground and snow cover enforce the rest period: here where the ground never freezes, we have to consciously think about the value of fallow.

            Okay, I decide. I had my respite this summer—now it’s the garden’s turn.

            The plan is this: I’ll finally clean up the vegetable garden and cut down the obstreperous whips of Gomphrena ‘Fireworks,’ neaten up the new bed, empty summer’s containers and compost the lot. When the tabula is almost rasa, I will blanket it with at least three inches of composted manure I never got around to using earlier in the year, finish off with a generous helping of kelp meal, sow red clover and onions in the raised beds. I’ll toss in whatever bulbs I couldn’t resist ordering more of. Then I wait, leaving it alone until March.

Toadflax Farm, fallow
          All the perennials I brought home from Christine’s (grower extraordinaire) this season that somehow never made it into the ground are cut down and arrayed against the walls of the house for that little extra warmth. While the garden rests, I’ll arrange them on paper for early spring planting. Maybe I’ll undertake some hedge control, as an excuse for messing about outside on sunny days, re-energized by my own fallow season.

* * *

         November’s a good time to begin topdressing your plants with composted manure. (“Topdressing” is a horticultural term for “putting stuff on top of the soil instead of digging it in.”) The work seems easier when you’re not blinded by sweat or swatting at biting insects all the damn time. Besides, if you start now, you’ll avoid the February rush on Black Kow at Lowe’s. Your azaleas, Japanese camellias, loropetalums and other late-winter/early spring blooming shrubs appreciate a dollop of Holly-Tone or rock phosphate now to help improve the flower show later. Remove the spent stalks from your lilies and irises, but leave the foliage intact. Don’t cut back your herbaceous plants unless you absolutely can’t stand the admittedly unmanicured sight: the seedheads feed finches and other small birds, and the dead leaves provide winter cover. (Canna lilies are an exception to this rule—their foliage goes all slimy and disgusting once frost hits.)

             As for winter color, I’ll stick with the tried-and-true if ubiquitous pansies, violas, snapdragons and sweet william. Professional note: smaller-flowered violas bloom more prolifically and seem cold-hardier, plus they don’t require deadheading. If it’s less work, I’m all for it.

* * *

             In the current worrisome political and economic climate, working in the garden serves as a calming and grounding activity, reminding us there is still much to be grateful for. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

             And thanks for dropping by.