THERE WAS that week of cold weather. Now it's warm and clear and beautiful again, but we've had the warning of winter, which will descend on us without warning any day.
I remember one frightful year (among many, here) in which the basil froze in September. Believe me, we are nearer the North Pole than the Equator, and it's only the proximity of the sea (and the buffer of mountains to the west) that makes the capital livable. Once those mountains wear down and the currents of the sea shift, we might as well live on Marblehead.
But the few summer days left to us, how precious they are, how glorious. There is no other time of the year so splendid for digging the Bermuda grass out of the irises, for deeply digging the beds, or trenches, or smaller planting sites, for the fall bulbs that must soon go in.
How shall summer's honeyed breath hold out, I often asked myself this week, against the wrackful siege of battering days?
The bronze dog that I suspect saw many a summer come and go in Southeast Asia before settling down to preside over my little water basin holding the pink water lilly (N. laydeckeriirosea) has the secret: Keep smiling.
Usually my main garden walk is hazardous by now, with the catenary chains of grape vines along its edge for 40 feet. The grapes are full of wasps and even hornets (I had never noticed hornets around grapes, but the farther north you go the more surprises you may expect) and there have been days I thought you can pay too much for beauty -- even for the beauty of grapes on their chains.
This year, since I did not spray the vines against brown rot, there is hardly a grape on the vine by the walk, and while this is rough on the mockingbirds, I rather enjoy the peace. But next year I must spray.
I have never eaten finer plums than I got this year from 'Stanley,' even if there were only about a dozen of them. The tree is young, and was not sprayed. My experience has been that with peaches, apples, grapes, plums, and so on, you may get by for a year or two without spraying, but soon the little varmints will show up and you won't get anything worth eating.
It is also an article of faith that eventually the hummingbirds will show up, too. They only came once, two years ago, to sample the cannas. This year for the first time the great trumpet vine, 'Madame Galen' has been a great show from July 4 on, and not a hummer, but one year they'll turn up by the dozen.
The reward is clear, now, for your faithfulness in watering the roses all summer, and keeping the mulch cool above their roots. You now see masses of flowers forming. If, on the other hand, you took to the beach and let the goose grass draw sustenance from the rose bed, you have bare stems to look at, denuded by blackspot. The rose, as ordinarily grown in ordinary varieties under the care of ordinary garderners, is scarcely worth the bother of planting.
For reasons unknown, a couple of clumps of the red phlox, 'Starfire,' have been in color for two months. Something suited them, for a change.
Also, the wild pink azalea from the Diamond Mountains, R. schlippenbachii , has not dropped its leaves this summer.
Cuttings of dwarf box, rooted outdoors after Christmas from Christmas greens used in the house, have rooted, vigoriously. Within 50 or 60 years they will form a fine hedge.
The little Sargent's crab, which is only three or four feet high and was only planted last year, has honored me with two little crab apples the size of peas. I do like to see a plant make an effort.
For several years the gorgeous single red rose 'Dortmund' has hung fire, growing up to five feet and staying there. This year it has shot up a couple of canes maybe 10 feet, and in time it will do its duty up to 16 or 20 feet. It is a rose of vast brilliancy, the color of a stop light, but not neon-looking. It is a fine rose for flinging itself over a fence in places where it need not be pruned and clipped in ways it does not like. Its only problem (common to a number of modern roses bred in Germany as climbers) is that sometimes it does not want to climb.
This can never be said of 'Mme. Gregoire Staechelin,' a rose I should not mention since I know of no commercial source for it, despite the fact it is the most beautiful of all pink climbers. It is gawky, it shoots out like a pear tree at any angle it pleases, and it waves its stoutly armed stems an inch thick at anything it wishes to. Ideally it should be given a stout support like a telephone pole, tied in rather closely for the first eight feet, then let loose to fling itself everywhere at random.
For some years my little blue-leaf cunninghamia (C. lanceolata) has sat prostrate with grief on the ground. This year it has raised its head and now towers at 18 inches. This is one of the most beautiful and distinct of conifers, the flat broad needles lying on each side of the stem like large combs. In time it makes a tree, giving somewhat the effect of a smaller and more luxuriant deodar cedar, the one from the Himalayas. The cedar requires the same space a white oak does, but the cunninghamia can be kept the size of a lilac. It's just that sometimes (not always) a pot plant will sit there for five years, but in time it will grow and grow vigorously.
A sedum, 'Autumn Joy' is in full bud, ready to bloom. I cannot think why so many plants that I like seem to attrack wasps, which alarm me considerably. sAll the sedums grow rapidly from cutting. If you set out one sedum, the next spring you can make perhaps 20 cuttings, each of which will make a plant that flowers the following September, so there is no need to buy more than one.
One of the most beautiful of all garden plants, the Japanese autumn clematis, which in our neighborhood makes a fine weed of itself, sowing itself everywhere, is coming into bloom. The tiny white buds are already visible against the insect-proof and disease-free foliage.
It is a pain, sometimes, to get out weed grasses from among flowers, but now is a grand time to do it. Otherwise they sprout anew next April and will be virtually ineradicable by late May. Irises attract these grasses, though science has not yet discovered the magnetic principle involved. Now is the time to get rid of them, until next February when it will be time to get out the chickweed, then you're all right until April when an assault must be made against dandelions, but then you're all right until June when the first attack is launched on wiry grasses that get among the rhizomes. Then in early September the last and most vigorous campaign of the season is waged against grasses that shot up from underground stolons missed in June, and against knotweed that lay low until July, and against any little plantains that insinuated themselves in from wind-born seed. (These sit like tiny rosettes, preparing to burst into things the size of cabbages next spring).
I think it is probably possible to grow irises for years without having them bloom properly, because of these repeated assaults of grasses, but at least this year I seem to have had no iris borers to speak of. One of these springs they will bloom as they always used to in my former garden, and then all losses are restored and sorrows end.