Autumn sonata

Some plants are at their most radiant just before they die. As gardener Liz Ball says, "It's like their farewell concert."

Jeannie Marcucci of Haddon Heights checks the condition of her garden. At this time of year, “I think about things I’ve learned or accomplished over the season …,” she says. (Bonnie Weller / Staff Photographer)

September's garden is bittersweet.

Its mounded annuals are brighter, fuller than ever, a spirit-lifter every day. They stand on strong, green legs next to brown stalks of spent perennials, an odd couple in the garden light, which is astonishingly beautiful this time of year.

Muted gold in the daytime sun, all silvery shadows under the moon, the changing light helps Liz Ball of Marple Township literally see her garden a different way now than she did in June.

"I tend to see not so much plants as individuals, but in a more holistic way. It's the blends," she says.

Spring and summer showcase "the prima donnas, the big flashy this, the great color that. When fall comes, a lot of the big in-your-face stuff is past, so what you get is this nice blur of texture and color punctuated by some of the dead, dried stuff.

"It's a whole different look," says Ball, author of several garden books, including Month-by-Month Gardening in Pennsylvania.

Thus the garden becomes a sweeping aria, a soft color wheel, rather than an iconoclastic chord or chromatic blast, everything enjoyed in its own time.

This week, the time quietly slipped from summer to fall.

The roses are blooming again, although with less fragrance and vigor. These old friends are most welcome back. They endured relentless spring and summer rains, developing sickly, polka-dotted leaves that fell away and turned feisty climbers into stick-plants.

The season's last tomatoes are hanging on, though there are precious few of them amid the thin, browning branches. And those once-robust reds look more like pink, deepening slowly.

Some plants, as Ball has discovered, are at their most radiant before winter sets in - Cornus florida, for example.

This is the native flowering dogwood. It's everywhere, part of the local wallpaper. In early spring, its snowy white blossoms are so lovely, we sing their praises and bring their branches inside and celebrate the end of blossom-starvation.

We'd barely notice if they bloomed in summer. Too much else shouts for attention. And they're on the small side for a tree. Like the youngest kid in a large family, easy to ignore.

Come fall, they're wondrous once more - if you've the eyes to see.

Ball and her husband, horticulturist Rick Ray, have a flowering dogwood outside their screened-in porch, which, though on the first floor, sits about 10 feet above a sloping backyard that melts into a floodplain.

The dogwood grows on the berm of the slope and is best appreciated in spring, when you're wrapped in a sweater, feet on the ground. Too chilly on the porch.

This time of year, however, sitting up there to survey the realm, hashing over the hard work that's done and the endless tasks ahead is a seasonal rite of passage in this household.

"For the next couple of weeks, the dogwood is fabulous. The leaves are red, the berries are bright red, and as we look down on the top of it, it's like it's sort of saying, 'This is what I do. Look at me!' " Ball says.

"It amazes me how some plants are really most triumphant just before they die. It's like their farewell concert."

As with any concert, there's work involved - or soon will be. Time to build raised beds, collect leaves for compost, divide perennials, clean up the vegetable garden, and plant new trees.

As Jeannie Marcucci ambles through the naturalistic garden she and her husband, Rob LaCerra, created out of aging chaos behind their Haddon Heights home, she makes a mental list.

In a few weeks, she'll clean out the patio containers and scrub with a little white vinegar and water and a wire brush.

She'll chuck the dried-up euphorbia. "If I loved it, I'd prune it down, but it stunk worse than a boxwood in winter," she says.

What was labeled a column-shaped euonymus grew into a blob; that's history. The purple coneflowers are terminally ill; they're gone, too.

And oh, the self-seeding perilla. Mint's purple cousin is a major pain. Started out small and wound up a monster. "It's starting to make seeds, but it's not too late to rip it out," says Marcucci, staff designer for DeMichele Enterprises in Media, whose private business is called greenjean gardens.

Gardeners are famous for finding metaphors in the pea patch - its life and death cycles, its joy and heartbreak. So it is with Marcucci, who pairs her annual evaluation of success and failure out back with a "harvest of my life events and purposes.

"I think about things I've learned or accomplished over the season - how things grew and how my life may have changed in and out of the garden," she says.

Haddon Heights' deputy tax collector, Pat Cooper, knows a thing or two about pluses and minuses - and insights gleaned from the landscape.

"Ten years ago," she says, "I thought I'd like to live in the tropics, but I changed my mind. Being in Florida one time when it was, like, 98 degrees and humidity was 120 and seeing all the bugs and slow drivers, I thought, you know what? My husband always said he likes the four seasons.

"Now I agree with him," says Cooper, an insatiable gardener. "This is a very pretty time of year."

Traci Miller isn't so sure - at least, in her Cherry Hill garden, a work in progress for eight years.

Miller, who works part-time for a foundation, hasn't yet found enough fall-blooming perennials to keep the show going. "A lot of summer things are dying and all of my perennials are fading," she says with a sigh.

Not all. Just when you think the cause is lost, the 'Purple Dome' asters begin to pop. Like stars in the night sky, they brighten life on Earth.

Till winter, at least.



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