The tender plants are in, the beds are mulched and the leaves have fallen. November is never an exciting month in the gardening calendar, filled as it is with so many to-dos and so few ta-das. I find my enthusiasm lessened somewhat by the cold, and the dreariness of a grey sky, yet coming indoors to yellowing leaves on tropical refugees isn’t much in the way of inspiring either. Sitting at my desk this morning and looking out upon my quiet, cold kingdom, I am reminded of the tongue-in-cheek thoughts of Thomas Hood upon the subject:
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member–
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,
Tom was English, and a Londoner by birth, and never made it further west than Oxford as far as I can make out, yet he captures the somber tone in my little Mid-Atlantic garden each and every year around this time. Easy work days outside – whether warm and sunny, or cool and breezy – are gone. Now, November presents the gardener with a choice: either dig out the mulling spices and turn one’s back to the windows; or put on a sturdy coat and take care of business out there.
With few exceptions, anything I can accomplish in the late fall garden means one less chore for the frenetic spring season. The leaves could be swept up, the paths re-graveled, the vegetable beds reinforced. Any new plants left in pots should travel to the basement, saving me the trouble of throwing their frozen corpses on the compost pile come March. Yes, I am in little danger of running out of tasks, only motivation.
There are two things that invariably help my attitude. One is opening up the cedar chest at the end of the bed and pulling out thermal leggings and woolen hats. Warmth is key when battling fundamental laziness. Secondly, (and once well-wrapped) a slow observational walk around the garden is usually enough to jolt the synapses and get the mind moving forward to next season. And as any gardener or bee-keeper will tell you, the new season begins right now.
Truly, there is so much to study, one just has to adjust one’s expectations. There will not be many blooms, but intricate seed heads remain. No more lush growth to cut back, but weeds have stopped their seemingly endless assault of the perennial beds. And, lack of weeds means being able to clearly view the plants and shrubs you originally planted…for better or worse.
I recently spent some time with garden author and lecturer Pamela Harper, who does not sit upon her hands at this time of year. “This is my season for evaluation,” she said, as we wandered around her extraordinary garden in Seaford, Virginia, “observing what worked and what didn’t and deciding whether it is finally time for something to go.”
November gives us this clarity. Released from the demands of summer we are able to see the structure that winter’s winds have not yet altered. There will be little time next spring for such dilly-dallying – we must seize this time while we may.
But be warned! November will not coax us in the garden with soft summer songs. She will not make it easy to start a project, nor to finish one. Her charms are apparent only to the industrious gardener. So get the thermals on, get out there and discover them before Jack Frost beats you to it.