Deborah Needleman,

Deborah Needleman,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Nov. 5 1997 3:30 AM

Deborah Needleman,

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       Fall, I think no one will dispute, is an excellent season. In terms of gardening, however, I think it is more accurately two excellent seasons. There is the early part of fall, when it hasn't yet completely displaced summer, and there is the later fall, the one that slouches toward winter.
       Early fall, which here in the Hudson Valley ended about two weeks ago, was a wonderful time for me and my garden. The garden was really wild and overgrown. The plants were giving all they had, one final push. Things were tiring though, some leaves were becoming paler, more translucent, others had the blush of fall, seedpods were forming, and leaves dusted the surface. The destructive effects of fall had a weighty inevitability about them that allowed me to be accepting of my garden for the first time. It was all so clearly beyond my control. I felt released from responsibility for my garden's foibles and idiosyncrasies. It had finally grown up and become separate from me. I had a messy garden, and I wasn't worried about it. I felt so cool. A liberated neurotic gardener.
       Then one day the early part of fall ends and it is the other fall. This is immediately apparent when you walk into the garden because the annuals, who are very clear about who they are and what they're meant to do, announce it. They work really hard for you during the worst part of summer, when the perennials refuse to put out, and when they're done they just turn it off, and go completely black. Around this time you put the garden to bed for the winter. You do stuff like collect seeds, move plants around for the last time, lift up the dahlia tubers to store them for winter, cut back the peonies, and amend the soil with some compost that has finally cooked to perfection.
       Today I had the pleasure of ripping the annuals from the ground. Some of the big salvias and the cannas required two hands and all my strength. I cut back the raggedy perennials, and left others standing that I thought might look nice with winter light coming through them or with a dusting of snow. And like yesterday, I pulled back all the leaves in order to lay bare the ground, simply because I was eager to see it. I don't know why, exactly, maybe because of the possibility it implies, but there is an undeniable earthy sexiness to bare dirt at this time of year.
       Why must some people insist on denying the beauty of fall's decay? They seem to fear the quiet, empty space and rush to fill it up with those monstrous, misdirected vegetables, the so-called ornamental cabbages. Ornamental they are not. They are stiff balls of neutered kale with ruffly leaves that pose as flower petals. They fly in the face of everything fall stands for. This month's Garden Design magazine actually recommends them, endorsing them for "pumping out their saturated pigments" in colors like "Day-Glo pink and stoplight crimson." Is it necessary to say that these colors do not belong in the fall palate? A silvery-green head of iceberg lettuce would be preferable to ornamental cabbage's ruffled pink and white confection; so would a rock. The article notes with apparent surprise that until recently "it was not a plant to be gazed upon with delight." I would like to meet a person who has ever gazed in such a way upon such a thing. Does one stop to smell it, appreciate the stalwart way its leaves ignore the wind, or admire its crunchiness? Sitting on the reception desk at the offices of House & Garden today was a flower arrangement that included among the roses, ivy, and lisianthus, a few green- and white-speckled cabbages. People remarked with delight how they looked just like roses! For me roses will always do just fine for roses. And the sound of leaves crunching underfoot will always compensate for the paucity of flowers.

Deborah Needleman is Slate's gardening columnist and an editor at large at House & Garden. She lives in New York City and Garrison, N.Y.