Today, you may be surprised to learn, is the first day of Fall. Fall, you may feel, commenced weeks ago—just in time for the football season, innumerable Fall sales, and references to Fall in news reports. “Here Comes Fall Weather,” announced the Washington Post on September 15th. New York Magazine published its Fall Fashion issue in mid-August, when the city was basking, if not baking, in 80-degree temperatures.
Premature or no, I don’t care much for Fall; Autumn, on the other hand, I’m mad for. The word “Fall” comes freighted with glum connotations of descent, decline and peril. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Falling in battle. The fall of Icarus. The fall before which pride proverbially goeth. A hip-shattering fall down the stairs. Yes, one does fall in love, but love too comes with pitfalls.
The reason I am so crotchety about the “Fall” (the word derived from the falling of leaves) is that the term conveys none of the fertile vitality that is such a feature of this dimension of the year.
So join me in bidding adieu to both newly-departed Summer and ill-named Fall, and herald the first day of awesome Autumn. Together let us welcome what John Keats describes as the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” in his ode “To Autumn,” perhaps the English language’s best-loved poem.
The existentialist writer Albert Camus—no Pollyanna he!—was likewise partial to this parturient season, writing “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” The title of his novel, “The Fall” (“La Chute”), by contrast, refers to mankind’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, a fall from which we’re still trying to get up.
Like Spring, Autumn offers the gardeners among us (hear us grow) a new beginning, and the prospect of a bountiful and varied harvest. The season is the ideal planting and growing time for lettuce, spinach, kale, cabbage, turnips, and Brussels sprouts.
This particular year the second gardening season is particularly welcome. This just-past summer’s record-shattering heat wave wreaked havoc on tender annuals like peppers and tomatoes.
When crops encounter a jolt of harsh weather (blast-furnace heat, or the unseasonable and unreasonable cold snap) they do something very sensible: they shut down. Unable to flee climactic extremes, plants over the last few million years developed the survival technique of withdrawing their metabolisms from exposure. They steadfastly refuse to flower, fruit, or ripen until the extreme heat or cold passes; only then do they agree to resume normal growth.
In much of the U.S., the extreme heat sizzled on for six weeks, right in the heart of summer. Autumn—“green autumn” as I think of it—offers a reprieve from the summer’s ill-behaved temperatures and diminished harvest.
“Second summer” is now in full swing, offering gardeners the chance to reap the autumnal bounty. In northern states, gardens will flourish until mid-October, and even late October, if you’re near the Atlantic coast. Gardeners in the South will carry on gardening into late November, and as late as mid-December in the Deep South and Southwest (South Texas, Southern New Mexico and Arizona, and Southern California).
Gardeners in the South’s balmier climes can enjoy a harvest both longer and broader, which includes collard greens and broadleaf mustard. One shortcoming of second summer gardening are the shorter days, which affect a few temperate (Northern) annuals, but are tolerated by crops and flowers in most of the country.
In autumn, forward-looking gardeners—avant-gardeners!—will be planning and planting ahead. Numerous crops can be planted now for overwintering, so you can enjoy them in both spring and summer next year.
And then there is the “dream dimension” of fall gardening. Autumn is the right time to plant 2012-bearing garlic, fruits (blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, grapes, blueberries), ornamental plants (hydrangea), spring-flowering bulbs (tulips, daffodils, hyacinth), pansies, echinacea, and hellebores. Next spring and summer your garden will be lovelier and sweeter for your efforts.
My fellow American gardeners, grab your hats, pull on your wellingtons, and let us return to our gardens for our second summer. Let us rejoice in the poignant and flavorful rewards of green autumn, the “ Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”
This article appeared in The Providence Journal on September 22, 2011.