The fall garden

Sunday, September 15, 2002

I described the scene in my garden in late September for a now-defunct magazine, Rebecca's Garden: 

Careful! The fall garden’s finest may be hazardous to unsuspecting drivers! And if I happen to be out in the front garden, they’ll stop right in the street (which is actually a highway) to ask, “What kind of plant is that??” The first object of attention stands so blue, so tall, so cool in the damned heat: it’s Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus ‘Abbeville Blue’). Fine-fingered fans of graygreen leaves branch into a multitude of blue flower clusters. The old growth does get    a bit scruffy, so I keep it trimmed off and up to produce a canopy covered in blooms from late summer on.

More streetside wonder erupts at Candelabra ‘trees’. Cassia (or more properly, Senna) grows as a perennial in the coastal south, but the rest of us plant the seed each spring and wait. Reward comes now as rounded, bright green leaflets hold their yolky yellow candles aloft. The flowers stand straight up, and rather resemble lush yellow golfballs stacked one atop the other. Seeds saved now can be started outdoors in pots next March and transplanted to the back of a sunny border in May to pack a hot punch next September.

I’m taking the kids on our annual backyard safari, counting how many yellow sulphur butterflies can hover over the boisterous ‘New Gold’ lantanas. This group of plants with such evocative names (‘Butter and Eggs’, ‘Radiation’, ‘Confetti’) must attract more flutterbyes per flower than anything else. The more sun and heat, the more flowers. I fertilize the lantanas only once with a slow release flower formula in May. Older bushes get cut back while dormant to about half their height, and chopped a bit anytime they begin to scrape the car or my patient mail carrier.

The vegetable garden yields huge quantities of hot peppers and okra, plus the first fall tomatoes. I’m known for my pungent pepper vinegar, the perfect spicy complement to turnip greens and any dried bean dish. Challenged by a dear brother to make it hotter than hot, I’ve grown just about every hot pepper. My favorite combination for taste and pow! uses these: tabasco, cayenne, jalapeno, thai, and habanero. Once you harvest, all it takes is clean peppers, jars, and tops, plus apple cider vinegar. Gifts of this potent brew must carry warning labels.

Everything needs water regularly now, but especially camellias, lenten roses, and winter’s other best bet, berried shrubs. Keep it coming to deciduous trees, too, especially if you want ‘fall’ color, which usually appears here around Thanksgiving.  

Just when you can’t stand the heat another minute, one red sunset evening the breeze blows almost cool. Persimmons, native and gnarly, dot the roadside woods, their orange orbs gleaming in the last light. And over there, somebody’s painted a few of the little pumpkin-shaped fruit to look like jack o’lantern faces: Can Halloween be this near already? Thus inspired, I head over to the Farmer’s Market to shop for Japanese persimmons, a singularly delicious treat only available in autumn.     

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