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Falling Down in Autumn
by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.

September 26, 2004

While autumn might be a melancholy season in the garden, full of wistful farewells and sombre forebodings, nevertheless, for some it has a brighter side: namely, the stiff comeuppance it delivers coastal growers. Compared with the rest of the country -- basking amid crimson maples, brilliantly golden aspens and all the rest -- autumn on the coast is a comparatively colourless and lacklustre collapse into dreary grey.

In an exceptional year, our native bigleaf maples might put on a decent show, but usually they turn a callow yellow, blotched with brown spots, then fall off miserably. Our omnipresent red alders don't even make the effort -- they seem to just throw down their tatty leaves in disgust.

This is hardly the "Miles and miles of crimson glories...Miles of shoreland red and golden," celebrated by poets elsewhere across the land.

But somehow I don't detect any great outpouring of sympathy from other parts of the country towards those of us who must endure this wishy-washy mediocrity of a fall. Sometimes I suspect those east of us are snickering at our insipid autumn show.

Not surprising, really. I don't think I'm breaking confidentiality in disclosing that the coastal grower, while perhaps admired from afar, may not necessarily be loved. I suppose the chummy notes written in February to celebrate the first daffodils, then mailed to blizzard-battered friends on the prairies or back east, haven't helped. The loose talk of roses still blooming at Christmas. The slightly swaggering tone when describing marvellous semi-tropicals hardy enough for our yards.

All of this might easily be misinterpreted as smug self-satisfaction, not likely to endear us to frost-bitten gardeners elsewhere. There was, for example, a noticeable lack of empathy from points east during the great "snowstorm of the century" that buried Victoria last winter. It seemed more of a joke to some observers, the prevailing attitude seeming to be "Serves them lotuslanders right -- it's what the rest of us have to put up with every winter."

Perhaps pale and pithless autumns on the coast are nature's way of balancing the scales, of bringing to the coastal gardener just a smidgeon of humility.

But just as a horse may be led to water but not made to drink, a gardener may be brought to the trough of humility without becoming humbled. A more likely response, as we know, is the redoubling of efforts to overcome our shortfalls. Gardeners are like people who endlessly take self-help courses and seminars to try make things better.

This is certainly the route Sandy and I have chosen to surmount the mediocrity of a coastal autumn. Let the native trees insist on being drab if they want -- we'll bring in trees from elsewhere to create a panorama of gold and crimson glory that would make any Ontarian weep.

This madness involved transforming our old goat pasture into an arboretum of sorts. Enormous holes were dug, huge boulders unearthed, mountains of leaf mould and compost expended, and young trees planted bearing impeccable credentials in the matter of autumn colour.

Preliminary indications are that the purple maple and copper beech seem up to snuff; and certainly the smoke trees and Japanese maples are giving their best. But I'm not so sure about the liquidambers. Though reputed to produce a stunning autumn display, ours didn't do a whole lot last year. One of them insisted upon clutching its tatty but still-green leaves until well after Christmas, by which time we'd ceased to care very much. It was around then that someone said never acquire a liquidamber without first seeing it in fall colour, as some of them "do it" and some don't.

I fear the same may hold true for black gums, which also come with a reputation as autumnal superstars. It takes a considerable act of faith to picture our ratty little specimens that way, but faith we stoically maintain.

We went through a similar trial some years ago with the Japanese angelica tree. We tolerated its morbid thorny arms all winter and its pestilential suckering all summer in order to enjoy its celebrated fall colours. Instead, the big leaves turned a dull rusty shade, reminiscent of old autos in a wrecking yard, and fell off in less than a week.

Still, we're far from dismayed. We continue resolutely trundling in sumacs and box elders, vine maples and Korean dogwoods -- anything we can find to raise the colours. Mercifully, autumn's soon over, allowing us to get back to more rewarding aspects, like sniffing a late rose on Christmas Eve or writing to ice-locked friends elsewhere about the snowdrops in January.


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