August went out with earsplitting, thunderous booming that sent the cats under the bed, spectacular lightning shows, gusty winds whipping rain sideways, sounding a grand finale to the summer we didn’t much get to enjoy. Sitting on the deck savoring warm evenings didn’t happen often; no sooner did I get cushions out of the deck box and get comfortable, rains came again, many weeks three or four out of seven days. The couple of dry weeks we did have were nice, though too hot to truly enjoy.
Plants summering on the deck only needed watering once; the garden not at all. I finally gave up any chance of outdoor living; when the rain stopped upon occasion it went straight to sauna with heat and humidity, the slightest movement leaving me drenched to the skin. We spent most of our summer afternoons on our screened porch with the ceiling fan stirring the air, and any gardening was done in tolerable mornings — if it wasn’t raining. Truthfully, most of my gardening this summer, except for pulling the incessant weeds, picking up storm-blown branches and mowing more often than we really cared to, consisted of simply waving at it as I walked by to see what was blooming.
I always welcome September as the gateway to autumn. The sunshiny golden glow of bidens will soon fill in where many perennials have sung their last summer tune, 7-foot-tall sprays of bee-swarmed goldenrod sway overhead and cerise and purple crape myrtles are just now coming into full glory. Naked ladies with fluffy pink tutus have left the stage; pinky-mauve and white colchicums (autumn crocus, or “naked boys”) are popping like jewels up in unexpected corners — I always forget exactly where I’ve planted them and I love the surprises. Some had to be transplanted this summer when clumps got too big and I found loose bulbs rolling around on top of the ground as if revving up for a road trip. I sometimes like to take a bare colchicum bulb (they have no roots in September) indoors to set on a windowsill where it will bloom, then plant it later. The flower is already formed inside the bulb and will open up like a little gift.
Down in the woods, delicate ferns that went dormant in July are unfurling tiny new fronds. Lespedeza “Purple Fountains” is a shower of mauve-pink blooms against the pure white of fragrant lily-like plantaginea hostas, and the garden is teeming with wildlife. Swallowtail butterflies are everywhere, walking sticks suddenly appear full-grown at 6 inches long, praying mantises stare at me with cocked heads as if sizing me up for lunch, and blue-tailed lizards skitter up the rock walls of the house when I step outside. Deer have invaded the woods; there is scarcely a hosta with leaves anywhere, in spite of repellents and many bags of Milorganite. The incessant rains have kept them all washed away and rendered ineffective.
And weeds everywhere. I thought I was having a tough time keeping up with weeds in spring and early summer, but suddenly we are inundated with pigweed, prostrate spurge, that damned mulberry weed from hell, pokeweed, dratted ragweed, and annual grasses insinuating themselves among perennials and pretty weeds I do want, such as goldenrod and bidens. They hide, well-disguised among bigger plants unnoticed until they’ve shot up 2 feet overnight when I was being less than vigilant; though It doesn’t seem to matter much if I pull them out; their offspring fill the vacancies in less than a week, taller than ever.
Compulsive weeder that I am, I can’t seem to take a casual stroll through our Chaotic jungle without yanking and pulling and heaving out weeds, toting double fistfuls to the compost pile every five minutes. I’ve learned to carry pruners whenever I leave the house to nip off dozens of tenacious sapling trees and those persistent elm tree suckers that regrow the minute I turn my back. Thankfully, most weeds are easy to pull from the rain-softened ground, but there are always those which break off and have to be grubbed out, turning my morning walk into a weeding frenzy with grubby knees, grimy fingernails, and lost coffee cup, put down somewhere undrunk and forgotten in the tussle with those stubborn weeds.
Elderberries, Sambucus canadensis planted eight years ago, are tall and mature, loaded with clusters of listening black/purple fruit. Any plans I might have for those berries will probably not be realized; there must be flocks of birds out there with purple beaks as the berries are disappearing as quickly as they ripen. We planted two varieties; native elderberries and an “improved” cultivar; but the cultivar is long gone and the natives have filled their spot. Two varieties are supposedly needed for pollination, but huge stands of wild elderberries along roadsides and byways loaded with fruit lead me to believe they are probably self-pollinating.
Elder bushes can reach 12 to 15 feet tall and wide if not pruned. Stems that have produced two crops should be pruned out in late autumn for better fruiting, but with the native variety, it doesn’t seem to be an issue. We do keep them cut back so we can get out of our back gate, and we lop off suckers as elderberries tend to make a forest of themselves if not forced to behave.
High in vitamin C, elderberries are reputed to be beneficial in treatment of rheumatism, upper respiratory ailments, allergies and improving immune systems though they must not be eaten raw. When I planted them I had lofty ideas of making syrup and maybe a little jelly but birds laid claim first. A few elderberries added to an apple pie give it a lovely color and piquant flavor, and I hear the wine is wonderful.
Maybe one year there will be enough for both birds and me. And I won’t be so lazy.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and follow their Facebook page, A Parrillel Universe of Wonderful Things.