The Spiritual Gardener: The Fall Garden – Conversation of Owls

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I love the way the weakening autumn sunlight filters through the coloring foliage. Here, the bright red of sumac stands behind the dark red of Canada red chokecherry.

Do you know the conversation of owls? I went to bed early Saturday with our bedroom window open and the cool air pouring in, and as I lay there waiting for sleep to overtake me, I heard two owls hooting to each other in the large trees outside our windows. I fell deeply asleep listening to their mysterious conversation.

Classically, owls are associated with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom whose favorite they were, and as a symbol they represent both wisdom and protection from harm. Owls were thought to protect the armies of Greece, and if one appeared before a battle it was universally taken as an omen of certain victory. I love living in a place where there are owls around; they have great dignity and gravitas, and their presence tells you that you are part of a healthy and robust ecosystem. There is certainly something reassuring and old-fashioned, almost primeval, about them.

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As I write this, it has been several weeks sincea the equinox and most of the flowers are now finished. We mostly have just green in the garden, though the huge mums, the canna lilies and the dahlias are still going strong, and the dahlias especially are impressive.  How dull the autumn garden would be without mums, asters, dahlias and helianthus.

It was sunny and very fine all weekend, but the morning sky is not light until 7 a.m. I had spotted a long red feather in the yard and feared our cardinal had been taken by a hawk, but then I saw him again last week so I guess he is all right. I also saw two tremendous blue jays in our hemlocks; it is always a rare treat here to see the birds we took for granted in our former garden. I got stung by a wasp again, about the sixth or seventh time this year, when dumping a pile of leaves too near the entrance to their home under a sidewalk paver. They are very protective of their homes, those wasps.

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It was a busy weekend in the garden. I replaced an azalea in front that had perished in our summer heat, swept the walk to the side yard and cut back the ivy around the giant Serbian spruce. I cleaned up and re-stacked the woodpile, and brought some logs inside for our first fires of the autumn. I cut back the ivy in the front yard, and then I got our big ladder out and got into all our trees to tear the ivy out of them, some for the first time since we have lived here. Ivy is great: it is extremely hardy and covers a multitude of sins and flaws in the garden, but if you are going to have it around, you have to be very vigilant in policing it and keeping it within bounds. It is a dangerous plant to have around because of its invasive nature, like bamboo, mint and honeysuckle to name a few of its aggressive and indefatigable pals. I don’t like the look of ivy growing up tree trunks, though I know some people do. To me it is unkempt and unruly looking, plus it can’t be good for the trees, trapping moisture in the bark and providing a haven for all manner of pests.

But pulling it all down showed me a better, esthetic reason to oppose ivy on tree trunks: how lovely the bark itself it is, and you really notice this when you strip the ivy off and see the different barks of the various trees, from the poured concrete of the smooth hollies to the red ridges of the cedars and the corrugated surfaces of the hemlocks, dogwoods and maples.  And sycamores are scaly and interesting with their camouflage patterns, while crape myrtles are clean and limber.

After cleaning out some of the birdhouses, I finally stopped at 4 p.m. and then did something I have never done before after a hard day of yard work – had some aspirin and an early martini on the front porch in the lowering sunlight. Well, okay, maybe I have done that a few times before, but not in a while. I marvelled at the beautiful day and the strong, clear sunlight on the broad leaves of the canna lilies and the grape leaves on the porch columns. I didn’t think I would be able to find any flowers to cut in the garden, but I managed a decent vase of roses and two other good bouquets, one of fall colors (two kinds of red chrysanthemums, “kiku” as the Japanese call them, cannas, sedum and peach dahlias) and one of magenta (two kinds of purple and pink chrysanthemums, the last of the phlox, and some magenta dahlias). Leaves are due to the curb for the first collection this coming week, so I will do that tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the northern world turns with daily greater haste toward the the gathering darkness of winter. Two weeks ago, before the autumnal dark descended, we had one final glorious day on the Sunday of that weekend. It was so clearly summer’s last hurrah that a friend and I decided on the spur of the moment to go kayaking down the Batso River in the heart of southern New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. It is not Colorado or Hawaii, to be sure, but it is very lovely all the same. The river was still running very full from our wet summer and the hurricane that dumped a ton of rain on South Jersey. The same hurricane knocked down a lot of trees into the river, making it much more exciting to navigate than the other time we descended it. There were few people on the river, the leaves were just turning, the swamp maples already in their full glory, and all for just a few eyes to see in the jewel-like wilderness just a hundred miles from many millions of people.  It was lovely, and by the end of the day we were tired and sun-burned and happy.  I felt like Henry David Thoreau in the wilderness.



David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.