Now each August I look for the early signs of what’s my favorite season: little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) flashing diamond-like seed heads in the lowering summer light, and stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) developing buds from deep within the upper leaves.
The flowers of purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) may be long gone, but soft cylinders of bronzy-silver seed heads take their place and float like driftwood among the thin leaves of sedges (Carex spp.) and bunchgrasses.
Out in the nearby prairies, I take inspiration from the tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum), Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), noting how these three aggressive species work in balance to keep one another in check and provide one heck of a punctuation mark to the end of the growing season.
Consistent rains have returned to nourish the roots of perennials and shrubs that will carry them through winter, and a rich musk settles around the spectacular empty seed heads of Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) and pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida).
It’s this season that pierces the deepest, as it reminds me of being 10 years old, when my family moved from the South to the North in late summer. Those first days of autumn were raw, filled with fear and depression. But one day, while I was walking in a small wood of maple and pine, a skein of Canada geese brushed by the treetops without even a single call, just the rush of their bodies and feathers like a calming stream of fresh water.
And that’s what an autumn garden is — vulnerable and uncertain. Some of the plants may not make it to spring. The winter snows may not come to insulate plants or recharge the groundwater. I might have planted something too late or regret having not planted enough before the soil froze (I’m looking at you, liatris).
But it doesn’t matter. I have the whole winter to dream and plot, to salivate over garden books and catalogs, to take stock and rest in the joyful memory of a garden life well-lived. Autumn isn’t the end of something — it’s a spectacular beginning. The frosted flowers and empty spider webs are a testament to the faith we gardeners thrive on.