The Spiritual Gardener: The September Garden

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Ah, the last bank holiday of the summer has come and gone, and with it came good times with family and friends, and an extra day or two in the garden! I love early September for its fine weather. Fresh without being cold, the quality of sunlight at the fall equinox is vivid and clear. The garden revives, but the gardener is not yet overwhelmed with garden chores or the end-of-season blahs.

This is a good time to crack down on weeds in the garden. Soon, leaves will claim a lot of our attention. Shorter days mean nothing, really, can get done on weekday evenings, and a thousand other cares unfortunately summon the gardener away from the garden for indoor chores. And if weeds are let go now, they will slip into winter and you will spend your precious spring days in the garden subduing a weed population that looks like Upper Amazonia. This is extremely good advice, as I am sure you appreciate. I have never actually followed it myself, and likely won’t have time to do so this year either.

This is also a really good time to divide all the plants you were thinking of dividing, though spring is when we commonly think to do that important chore.  Most of us are limited in what we can spend at garden centers. Some, like me, are even watched like hawks by certain people where garden expenditures are concerned, so dividing plants is necessarily a critical part of our clandestine expansion plans.

Autumn is also a great time to tramp through garden centers, nurseries and even the big-box hardware stores, because they all put their remaining nursery stock on deep discount. Sometimes you want a very specific creature for a specific site or a planting solution, and only that very specimen will do. Then, you have to order it, usually from a specialty company, and you know it is going to cost you. But if you are willing to be a bit flexible in what you plant, fall is the time to shop for value. It is shocking sometimes, in a good way, how inexpensive plants are at this time of year. For a big garden like ours, there is always something I want and can find usually at a good price and in relatively good shape. My wants and needs as a gardener are so vast, I find, and money is so annoyingly finite.

I do grouse sometimes about living in the East. Sometimes I find the cultures of our big cities oppressive: too much crime, too much corruption, too much traffic, pollution and general hurly-burly.  In my mind and heart, I am a westerner. I like the big skies there, with big fat clouds and astonishing sunsets. I like the friendly, open people in the West; they don’t have the edginess that harassed and crowded easterners often do.

But I have to admit, September in the Mid-Atlantic region is pretty fabulous.  It is still nice enough to go to the beach, and we have been several times so far this month.  The other night, we had dinner in Center City at a restaurant on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia that is in fact new, but was painstakingly made to look like a venerable Parisian bistro, complete with the zinc bar and the black and white marble tiles set in the floor.  If you live around here, you know the one I am talking about.  The menu is sensational and equally authentic, and they open up these giant walls of folding windows so you can look out on the Square. The trees were filled with mellow September sunshine.  It was fantastic, like being at a restaurant in Paris or Montreal.

And last week we went to New York to see a play on Broadway, and before the performance we went to have dinner in Bryant Park, which I have always liked.  It was the same thing there: we looked out onto the charming park with all the Parisian tables and park chairs, the tall sycamores capturing the last of the mellow evening sunshine in the pale green solar sails of their large leaves. The next morning, I went for a long run in Central Park and I hardly wanted to stop, as the weather was so fresh and fine, and running in the great park is one of my favorite things in life.

It is another hallmark of this great month that the gardening catalogs one receives now are of course full of spring bulbs, among other things, and how I love to paw through these, with the light of pure greed burning in my feverish eyes.  It’s indecent really, with summer not even over, already to be greedily thinking about all the glories of next spring, and I upbraid myself (gently) for my unseemly avarice.

This makes me think about my fevers for plants.  I think with this large garden I have finally burned out a few of those fevers: for azaleas, rhododendrons, hollies, irises, peonies, daylilies for sure and possibly for hydrangeas too.  We have so many of each that I am finally content and, while my fingers still twitch spasmodically when I pass them on the sale table at local nurseries, I can usually steel myself and walk AWAY from the table!

Not that I am tired of them, you understand, far from it in fact, but at least I don’t lust for them like I used to.  It turns out that the cure for flower fever is growing plants until you’ve had your fill of them.  Don’t, of course, go to fatal lengths, like the wicked and stupid King John who was said to have died in 1216 “from a surfeit of peaches” (though it was probably really dysentery). What a way to go. It was nice of him to get Magna Carta signed and pave the way for 800 years of English and later Anglo-American democracy, before he went on his binge in the royal peach orchard.

Getting your fill of plants is very satisfying, and is not against the law, even here in New Jersey, where everything is famously either forbidden or required, and nothing is left to chance or discretion. And at the end of the process, you are cured. Sort of.

Take peonies, for example.  I divided them and divided them in this garden until in the end I have more than six dozen of them, all whites and pinks, which I admit is a bit excessive but I love each and every one of them, and they are an important foundation plant of this garden. It is the same with several other plants, and I thank God I had the space and the strength of body (if not mind) to grow these plants to this level of self-indulgence and satisfaction. And it is nice to think that after a long life, lived with so many of these good friends and admirable creatures, contentment and maturity could descend upon the gardener. Well, okay, I may be overstating that a little bit.

But it is curious, too, how the fever still burns for some things.  Roses and irises, for example; I doubt I will ever get enough of them to be content.  And spring bulbs, oh my goodness.  If my wife’s vigilance wavers even for a second, I will be buying a dilapidated farm in the middle of nowhere just so I can plant daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, squills, muscari and glorious tulips by the acre.

Maybe that would cure me.  But I doubt it.


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.