The Garden in Late Autumn

Late November is always poignant for me.  My birthday falls on the 19th, and my favorite holiday–Thanksgiving–comes just a few days later.  Inevitably this time of year finds me in a particularly contemplative mood. I think about what it means to be another year older and reflect on my own mortality while also taking time to thing abut gratitude and the good fortune I have enjoyed.  A strange mix of melancholy and joy that I struggle to explain.  I remember growing up in farm country in eastern Pennsylvania and having that same feeling as I walked or rode my bike along the corn fields that had been cut down to ragged spikes and were now host to hers of whitetail deer and flocks of crows.  I doubt that I was contemplating mortality all that much at that age, but nevertheless, I can recall that same mix of sadness and delight.

I spent the better part of the past weekend cleaning up leaves and cutting back dead perennials and putting away the garden tools for the winter.  It is late autumn in New England and it has turned cold and we are reminded that winter is close. I’ve had A lot to think about today.  Recently turning 45 has weighed on my mind. We recently celebrated Thanksgiving with friends, and so I also thought about gratitude and good fortune.  Never far from the ecological, my thoughts drifted to things other than my lifelong affinity for merging the mournful with the celebratory. While cleaning up leaves I thought about the absurdity of cleaning up leaves and shipping them away.

As the light began to fade and I finished putting the garden to bed for the season I returned to that old preoccupation that is for me so tied to this time of year: life and death and the passage of time.  Gratitude, fallen leaves, and death. This may all sound a bit disjointed, but completing my work in the garden in late fall somehow tied it all together.


Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings. –William Arthur Ward


Each seasonal transition signals a set of duties I must fulfill–cleaning gutters, raking leaves, re-caulking windows and on and on and on.  A lot of people will roll their eyes and effect their most sarcastic tone and say “ahhh, the joys of home ownership.” I often say that myself, but without the eye rolls and sarcasm because  these are not chores to me.  They are rituals, and I love rituals.

It may seem absurd at first to think about the yearly chores of home ownership as sacred rather than profane, but I do.  What some would see as nuisance–raking leaves, cleaning gutters, cleaning out window boxes, cutting back perennials, and stowing away the gardening tools for the winter–are something more than what they superficially seem to be.

Rain barrel disconnected and turned on end to prevent ice damage

Far from rote, annual toils, these rituals of late autumn are another reminder of what it means to be thoughtful and to exercise care for the things around me: our home and the environment around it and the critters with whom we share our little corner of Marblehead.  Showing care for the things around me is how I express my gratitude.  So I go about my late Autumn tasks with the devotion of a pilgrim.  Perhaps “he piously kept his gutters clear of leaves” could be my epitaph! After a passerby got over the absurdity of that inscription he or she might consider what it means: that we may express our piety through attention to grand religious rituals, or, as I and many others do, through our attention to and care for common tasks.  I’m not a particularly religious man.  In fact, I lean heavily toward atheism.  However, I have always admired the Shakers for their devotion and craftsmanship.  On a trip to Hancock Shaker Village in western Massachusetts I saw a saying that really resonated with me: “Hands to work, hearts to God.”

In defense of leaves

Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain. –Henry David Thoreau


Autumn in New England brings many things: changing foliage, apple picking, cooler weather and, of course, a proliferation of Ugg boots.  Autumn also brings the near constant whine of 2 cycle leaf blowers as landscapers descend on our neighborhoods to rid each and every yard of the greatest scourge known to man (I mean besides Ugg boots): fallen leaves.  It is a ridiculous autumnal ritual that even I admit to falling prey to, though I am happily becoming more and more of an apostate.  I still blow the leaves from our small yard and driveway and walkways, but when it comes to the garden and beds, I am an advocate  for leaving the leaves alone (sort of).

  1. If I must pick up leaves, I try to find a way to use them on the property. Leaves that I clean off of the driveway and walkways around the house I put into a wire bin to make leaf mold which I use to mulch around plants.  I also add leaves to the composter to boost the amount of brown material.
  2. When I can, I leave them where they fall.  There are many benefits to doing this.  The leaves protect and insulate plant roots.  Leaves are also a vital habitat for small mammals, toads, turtles, and birds, all of whom need cover and protection during the cold winter months.  In the spring, I either work the leaves into the bed with a cultivator prior to mulching, or if there is too much buildup, I will add them to the composter.
  3. I spread  them in the treeline where, along with brush piles, leaves can return nutrients to the soil while providing vital cover.

It is ridiculous to think about the resources we expend rounding up leaves and hauling them away.  More ridiculous to consider how much of it winds up being landfilled.  For more information on why you should leave your leaves check this out.

The garden on the cusp of winter

“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape – the loneliness of it – the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it – the whole story doesn’t show.”- Andrew Wyeth

The vegetable garden has been put to rest for the year and I have cut back the perennials that have gone from summer green to a crisp, autumn brown after a late October frost.  When I cut back the desiccated plants I leave behind the seed heads from cone flowers and Black Eyed Susan among the leaf litter so the birds and squirrels may find a bit of forage before the first snow.  The leaves have lost their October hues and  lie scattered across the garden beds.  Brittle and snuff-colored they rustle now at even the slightest wind.  The garden in late autumn is austere, but beautiful still.  Dried stalks of grass remain upright, though they will eventually bend to the first snow fall.  Until then, their dried seed heads are luminous in the late November sun.

Inflorescence of the Miscanthus sinensis


This Pennisetum orientale ‘Karly Rose’ has lost its deeper red hues in favor of pink and brown while its remaining seeds disperse in the autumn wind.
A stand of Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ has fade from steel blue to bister, but continues to define our property’s edge.

Besides the evergreens, there is little color left, though the stems of the dogwoods seem to intensify in hue as we reach deeper into fall.

Red and yellow twig dogwoods, Cornus sericea

If the summer garden invites us to explore the proliferation of life, the winter garden–quieter but just as welcoming–invites us to consider the end of things.  Thoreau wrote of the falling Autumn leaves:

“How many flutterings before they rest quietly in their graves! They that soared so loftily, how contentedly they return to dust again, and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree, and afford nourishment to new generations of their kind, as well as to flutter on high! They teach us how to die. One wonders if the time will ever come when men, with their boasted faith in immortality, will lie down as gracefully and as ripe,–with such an Indian-summer serenity will shed their bodies, as they do their hair and nails.”–H.D. Thoreau, Autumnal Tints

Colder and more melancholic but just as vital and intriguing, the garden in late Autumn inevitably draws us to a meditation on death and the passage of time.  The year’s work is done, the harvest is in and we may take our rest.

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