It was a dark and stormy night; and in the morning light of a slightly blustery day, branches, twigs, shards of bark and leafy bits covering the ground looked like the aftermath of a war between the trees. Black walnuts littered the deck and lawn like green cannonballs, and chunks of leafy, acorn-laden oak branches caught at my feet, trip hazards on my reconnaissance through the battlefield to assess the damage. Though it was truly chaos, there was almost a feeling of catharsis, of calm as the sun warmed the morning, air fresh and clean — as if Mother Nature needed the release of a smashing good tantrum and cry. As a bonus, more rain this week gave our thirsty earth needed hydration as we segue into winter.
But Nature does have a way of leaving a mess to clean up in her wake, which is possibly not a bad thing; she pruned deadwood we couldn’t reach out of trees so we could gather it, neglected weeds were noticed and pulled; spent seed heads of natives we don’t want becoming a weedy issue were removed while choosing to save others for winter interest and reseeding as well as food for birds and small critters. Bidens are mostly past their prime, earning the sticktight name as the little forked seeds cling to pantlegs, sleeves and somehow even in my hair. I’ll leave some seeds to fall for next year and toss the majority in the long compost outside the garden fence; anything overwintering in the stems will be safe while mice and birds enjoy the seeds.
I’ve cut tall phlox to the ground and burned the stalks; many were infested with phlox bugs this summer. Native tall phlox are mostly unmolested by other insects, but those small red and purple phlox bugs are their nemesis, sucking juices from the leaves, leaving them pale, spotted, curled and disfigured, to dry up and fall as flower buds fail to develop. Spraying with insecticidal soap is recommended but has little effect, as they are very fast and hide well under the leaves. Destroying stems and leaves which harbor eggs and overwintering nymphs is the best control of these pests.
Other fall garden chores might as well be tackled while we are cleaning up storm debris as we come across them. Overgrown clumps of daffodils and surprise lilies can be divided and bulbs replanted. Autumn crocuses (colchicums) are mostly finished and corms (bulbs) can be moved before they develop winter roots. Lovely multipetaled Waterlily colchicums are still blooming, the last and latest of colchicum varieties, making the season more than a month long.
I was surprised to reach in the pocket of a hoodie I hadn’t worn since spring to find a colchicum corm I belatedly remember picking up as, having somehow escaped from its mother clump, it was rolling loose on the ground. I had every intention of sticking it somewhere but forgot. The unfortunate object of my neglect spent the summer in there, on a hook in my closet — but come September, it bloomed — in the dark, in that garden-to-be pocket. Retrieved, it is now on the kitchen windowsill, waiting to be carried out and planted at last. The ability of nature to often survive against all odds — and forgetful gardeners — is truly amazing.
A thing I didn’t know: Colchicum seeds, produced by the fall-blooming flower, develop underground and come up on a short stem in spring, hidden at the base of the leaves. In June, as the protective leaves brown and die, the ripe seed capsule bursts, scattering the seeds that start to grow underground and form corms which will have leaves of their own in spring. I had never noticed the seed capsules, now I’ll be sure to look for them.
As usual, with the exception of those tall phlox, bidens and pesky weeds, most of the garden will go into and through the winter looking as if this “lazy” gardener should put down her book and tea, get off her — um, couch — and get to work, but we deliberately leave it that way and refuse to feel at all guilty. In fact, guilt and remorse would come if we did clean it up. Raking, burning and/or shredding leaves are bygone practices; we know better now. “Leaving the leaves” as Nature intended provides haven and habitat for wildlife that make the garden all it can be, preserves moisture through winter and helps save endangered bees, butterflies and other species that all life depends on. Just leaving the leaves alone and whole is critical; they may break down faster when shredded to build soil, but at what cost? Butterflies, chrysalises, cocoons, ladybugs, bees and others overwinter in those whole leaves. Shredding, however well-intentioned and efficient it may feel, destroys the very insects we plant butterfly gardens and flowers for in summer and deprives our winter birds of insect protein they need to survive in addition to bird feeders, which, though it makes us feel good to help, are often not providing a necessary total diet.
Lazy gardeners may just be the ones who save life on this planet, after all. We should all be one.
Save the dates: The Joplin Regional Art Association Studio Tour, of which Chaos is a part, will be 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 6 and 12 to 4 p.m. Nov. 7. Seven studios of local artists are on the self-guided tour. where you can meet the artists, see their unique and individual work spaces and creations and purchase art for Christmas. Pick up a free map at Joplin Empire Market, 931 E. Fourth St., and see donated art pieces to be be given away in a drawing at the end of the tour with a purchased raffle entry (not required; the tour is free to the public). If you’ve ever been curious about Chaos, now is the time to catch a glimpse. Though we will not be doing guided tours of the garden itself (just the studio) walkabouts will be welcome. Or, if you get lucky, one of us might be free to walk along. Jim’s (and my) hand-finished Wander Sticks, my paintings and wire-wrapped jewelry will be available in the studio.
And while we’re talking about art, don’t miss Spiva Center for the Arts 74th Membership Show, now through Dec. 11. It was an honor be included with so many awesomely talented artists and receive a Merit award for my painting of my Chaotic studio, check it out. It’s one of the best membership shows in recent years, with 80 fantastic pieces of art. More info can be found on the Spiva Center for the Arts Facebook page.