Hartley Magazine

All the latest news, hints, tips and advice from our experts

September song

Summer’s ending. Tomatoes are still on the vine, but they take longer to ripen now, as the days grow shorter. I’ve pinched off the blossoms so my plants can concentrate on ripening the fruits they already have and not setting new ones. Basil still puts on new leaves but not with the abundance of July and August.

It’s not quite the last hurrah in the flower garden. Along the sunny walk, zinnias are still bright. Black-eyed Susan is bold. The calamintha still is a cloud of tiny white flowers and busy bumblebees. The diehard catmint, with its shy blue blooms and fuzzy gray-green leaves, is sprawling over the walk again though I’ve cut it back three times.

Roses are still blooming where I’ve deadheaded. Where I haven’t, though, they’ve switched to setting green hips that will ripen red like tiny apples. The begonias and coleus are still in business, but it’s time for me to take cuttings so I can overwinter them for next year. What’s coming into bloom are the late entries: white and lavender stalks of the last hostas, pink Japanese anemones and turtlehead, blowsy white fluffs on the Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’. Toad lilies are just starting, with blooms like tiny orchids made of lavender gingham.

I try all my tricks to take my mind off the end of the season. I get busy, ordering bulbs, dividing perennials, planting shrubs. I primp, snipping off hosta leaves with brown edges and the leftover stalks of earlier blooms, cutting back browned ferns, making everything green again. I moving pots of bright annuals and houseplants into bare spots created by earlier-blooming perennials, trying to kid myself it’s not nearly fall.

Still, I can’t help but notice that my shade-loving tropical peace lilies and sword ferns are now quite happy in places where they would have fried in high summer. The sun is lower in the sky and less sunlight is finding its way between the buildings and fences to my garden.

Chicago gardeners like to moan about how short our growing season is. We’re reliably frost-free only from mid-May to mid-October, a mere half the year. Tomatoes have to be started from seed indoors or in a greenhouse, and it’s something of a trick to grow heat-loving peppers or jack ’o’ lantern-size pumpkins.

But I spent a few days this summer in Quebec City. They’re in Zone 4 according to the USDA map (Zone 3 on the Agriculture Canada map), and their growing season is even shorter than ours by about a month. That doesn’t stop them from growing splendid arrays of perennials and lush vegetable gardens. I’m sure the Japanese maples and magnolias I saw are coddled in burlap in the winter and everybody has a cold frame to get started in the spring, but gardeners will do what they have to do.

Quebec has one advantage Chicago doesn’t: reliable snow cover. We get big snowstorms, but we can’t count on them; we don’t have snow to insulate our gardens all winter, every winter. Our plants are actually more exposed to bitterly cold, drying winds than those in gardens in Quebec.

Another reliable winter buffer is water. I spent a day on the Isle d’Orleans, an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River full of orchards and vegetable farms. The island has a slightly milder microclimate than the nearby city because it’s surrounded by water. The river may freeze solid in winter, but in fall the water holds warmth a little longer than the land.

Lake Michigan has a similar effect here: The water, and therefore the nearby shore, stay cooler longer in the spring and warmer longer in autumn. Because of the prevailing wind, the effect is more pronounced on the other side of the lake in southwestern Michigan, which has a growing season three or four weeks longer than Chicago’s. That’s our orchard country.

And that’s what the orchards in Quebec made me think of: apples. Yes, my garden may be on the wane, but apple season is coming up. In just a few weeks I’ll be able to bite into a just-ripened spicy-tart-sweet Jonathan. It doesn’t quite make up for the roses, but it helps.