It’s the first week of September, when many plants are already starting to drop their leaves. But believe it or not, things are starting to wake up in our garden.
Our tomato plants, which were leafy but largely barren all through July and August, this morning were heavy with large green fruit. Small clusters of buds are emerging from the tops of our hydrangea branches; each will turn into a showy blue flower if frost doesn’t get to them first. Our potted geraniums and window boxes, which were yellowed and sparse six weeks ago, now look as vigorous as the day we took them home from the greenhouse.
This isn’t supposed to be happening now. The first snap of fall, which is New England’s loveliest season, typically is a signal for all growing things to start winding down. Like the final flourish of a conductor’s baton, those first crisp breezes send a clear message that the show is over. But this summer — when the show was in full swing in most people’s gardens — ours was as disastrous as Spinal Tap’s final tour. It looked tired, ignored and unloved, despite mounds of compost, diligent pruning, deadheading, soil testing, weeding and relentless inspections. Our daffodils came up late, a single bloom for each big cluster of leaves. The hydrangeas, newly planted this year, gave a pretty if not spectacular show in early June then stopped. Some of their leaves developed black spots from my well-intentioned but misguided watering, which caused them to burn out. The geraniums, supposed to be the easiest flowers to grow, still struggled in their pots, while gray mushrooms sprouted around their stems. And our tomatoes, despite being grown in an organic “square foot garden” that was one-third compost, produced pretty flowers that never turned into fruit.
Throughout July and early August, other gardeners enjoyed baskets of ruby-red tomatoes, lush bouquets of basil and trumpet-sized zucchini. One friend’s coneflowers were a blaze of purple, while only five of them emerged in our flower bed. I beat myself up over this, thinking that I was cursed as a gardener or that my soil was cursed. The confidence that possessed me in the Spring — when Bob and I fervently worked the soil, dug holes and sunk dozens of plants and transplants into the nurturing earth – shriveled in the searing July heat.
My brother Dan, who visited a month ago, advised Miracle-Gro. I didn’t think this was necessary because I had used compost and figured that an organic approach would be enough. But soon after I began the chemical interventions, the window boxes and pots began sprouting buds, the leaves grew a deeper green and infant tomatoes were born from the yellow flowers. And the hydrangea, which looked so tired for so long, now are signaling a second coming, more glorious than the first. So I don’t feel so hopeless after all. Now we are just hoping we can harvest the tomatoes and enjoy a spectacular flowery finale before frost shuts it down for good.
I think this experience illustrates the pleasures of blooming late, after everybody else has peaked. Sometimes it’s frustrating to feel dormant when everyone around you seems to be growing and thriving. It can be easy to get mired in depressing thoughts that your time has passed, or even that it may never come because you made too many mistakes. But then something happens that surprises you. Maybe it doesn’t happen organically, like it does for people blessed with youth, good genes, inherited talent or a natural green thumb. Maybe you need a little mental Miracle-Gro to force along what nature has shortchanged. My Indian summer garden reminds me that every season of life brings its flowerings, sometimes when you least expect it.