Sandy Parrill: It's fall, y'all

Anemone tomentosa “Robustissima” is a lovely Japanese native but is a robust spreader — increasing by stoloniferous roots — and can easily overwhelm an otherwise well-behaved bed.Courtesy | Sandy Parrill

Ask what is my favorite time of year, and I’ll have a different answer for every season and each year. I always think of spring in April as my favorite, with gently warm days and smell of fresh, awakening earth, daffodils and wildflowers welcoming soft spring sun and waking up one morning to see velvety young green has cloaked winter drabness overnight, turning the garden into a fairyland of flowers. The air is sweetly scented with lilacs and viburnums; redbud and dogwood trees are painted plein air as Nature’s finest art. I am always eager to get my hands in the soil, planting, exploring and “cleaning house” when work is pleasure and rewards are joy.

Ask me again in May when jewel-toned irises are in bloom, climbing New Dawn rose scrambles across the stone wall and hostas have unfurled (before the deer find them). Chaos is in its glory, alive with birds and butterflies, bursting with life and energy. I love the garden in May and June.

Queried in July and August, I’ll likely have a crabby retort under the doldrums of Missouri heat and humidity when I only venture out in early morning coolness, retreating indoors in sweltering afternoons until balmy, starlit evenings beckon. My soul yearns for autumn, Orion in the night sky, sweaters and hot cider; garden chores are a thing to be avoided, especially weeding.

Perhaps after all, my favorite time of year is fall, a time of pleasant days, cool night breezes and lower humidity. If possible, the garden seems more alive in September than in June — the hustle and bustle of wildlife preparing for winter; squirrels shucking walnuts on the deck railing, leaving piles of husks to stain the rails and tables; filamentous spider webs by the hundreds, tiny blue-tailed skinks underfoot, huge moths fluttering around porch lights; and walking sticks, six or more inches long, appearing out of nowhere clinging to screens (where have they been all summer?). Fat caterpillars, some rosy pink in their last instar, are on the move, looking for places to hang chrysalises and cocoons once more before cold weather — to wait for spring, and others to spend the long winter sleeping or migrating. Mice are headed indoors for Max to find and play with for a while before he wears them out, leaving the tiny corpses discarded on the kitchen floor.

Summer birds will soon be preparing to head south for winter to Central and South America — though it disturbs me wondering if there will be any rain forests left for them with the devastating fires in Brazil, the destination for many. A Wisconsin photographer and nature writer friend reports flocks of juncos and chickadees have already begun to leave Canada and northern states for warmer winter quarters, due to arrive in the Ozarks in October to welcoming backyards and well-stocked bird feeders.

Huge yellow and black argiope orb-weaving spiders are in abundance in September, weaving huge, complex webs across doorways and among tall perennials (and where have they been all summer? Hobnobbing with those walking sticks, no doubt).

Berries and fruits abound; bright red spikes of Arum italicum and Jack-in-the pulpit seeds, purple berries of beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), pokeberries and wild grapes as well as elderberries, where flocks of robins are hanging out, scattering with indignation at my intrusion. Apple trees are laden and wasps gather to sip the sweetness of rotting, windblown fruit littering the ground. Jim’s figs are ripe and already picked.

The garden is again full of color after the late summer hiatus. Crape myrtles will bloom well into October; ours are still not fully opened. Chrysanthemums have suddenly shot up two feet tall with buds after spending all summer biding time at six inches, and bidens will bring gold to the garden by weeks’ end. Anise-scented Salvia guaranitica “Black and Blue” is nearly 5 feet tall, intense cobalt flowers showy against the front border fence.

September is time to take assessment of the late summer garden and plan for spring; to decide what gets to stay, what to divide and what is not earning soil space, and to decide what, if anything, to add for the next fall garden. We did not plant many perennials this past spring; it’s been a wait-and-see year, watching to see where the natives want to go — though I must admit to digging out wild ginger, tall phlox and violets by wheelbarrow loads lest we be totally submerged in the green tsunami flooding the Chaotic garden this year. Some hostas have disappeared without a trace. I suspect voles, but volunteer seedlings are plentiful to fill any empty spots. Next spring will tell how many have survived this summer’s deer attacks.

Deceptively dainty green spears of grape hyacinths are heralding spring to come, forming a carpet under our smoke tree and poking up in every path and corner, punctuated by tiny cushions of fuzzy brown-eyed Susans and coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seedlings. Now is when to harvest and scatter seeds of native plants as Nature produces them, so they are subjected to winter freezing which unlocks their dormancy. Many will sprout immediately and grow all winter; others awaken with warm February days while we human gardeners are still shivering in winter underwear.

The rosy pink glow of Anemone tomentosa “Robustissima” edges the driveway, flower stalks matching my height. This lovely Japanese native is a robust spreader — increasing by stoloniferous roots — and can easily overwhelm an otherwise well-behaved bed; much of it will be removed in spring because it has crowded a border of miniature daffodils and variegated liriope. It mixes well with other aggressive fall bloomers, and I’ll relocate a few in spring to our front bed. It will be stunning with Salvia guaranitica, annual bidens, zebra grass, autumn clematis, and it can’t get into too much trouble. I'll also add it to an otherwise neglected corner of the herb garden with goldenrod, tiger lilies and rudbeckia — if the black walnut will allow it.

Ask me again in December about my favorite season while I’m sipping peppermint tea, cozied under my warm afghan in my lounger with a good book, fireplace and watching snowflakes transform my world.

At least, that’s my vision. Reality will no doubt smack me upside the head as Yuletide glow fades with mid-January ice storms but no lovely garden-insulating snow, and I’ll be longing again for April.

Sandy and Jim Parrill garden at Chaos, their acre of the Ozarks in Joplin. Sandy is a lifelong gardener, a Missouri master gardener and winner of The Missouri Writers Guild 2018 first place award for Best Newspaper Column. Jim is a former garden center owner and landscaper; both are past members of the Missouri Landscape and Nursery Association. Email them at and follow their Facebook page, A Parrillel Universe of Wonderful Things.

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