I’m already missing autumn’s dazzling display of colors, while right in the middle of one of the best in memory.
I’ve relished them for weeks now, partly a déjà vu experience as I travel repeatedly up and down the state for garden lectures, watching the scene shift and repeat every 100 miles and every few days.
All those hues of reds, oranges, mauves, burgundy, purples, golden yellow and myriad variations on basic brown — from taupe to the raw rust of cypress — were there all along, only masked by green chlorophyll, the basic engine of all life on earth. The autumn show is triggered by shorter days, cooler nights and sometimes leaves just being worn out from a long, hot summer. As leaf petioles seal off from twigs, everything starts to shut down, and the green gets used up to gradually reveal the underlying pigments.
This year it unfolded slowly, just rightly. Set up by a long, wet spring pushing lots of lush growth succored with good summer rains, tree leaves were pumped with color pigments bringing life to the earth. The unending hot, dry spell in September and October kicked off an early start to leaves’ natural detachments, and an almost disastrously sudden deep freeze sealed the deal, preventing plants from hardening off slowly, so the color pigments got stuck and have lingered.
Bottom line: For all the years I have had people comment on how good or poor the fall colors are compared to forests in northern climates and higher elevations, this one has been a benchmark in beauty.
Some of the more brilliant Southern mainstays that really shined this fall include sumac, ginkgo, sweetgum, dogwood, redbud, sassafras, black gum, hickory and the rusty brown bald cypress. Scarlet, red and other oaks, maples and ornamental pears really strutted their stuff. As usual, generic green poison ivy transformed into red and golden flames licking up tree trunks. All have left lawns and street curbs awash in a kaleidoscopic tapestry.
No matter. It’s all withering, shedding, falling, headed back to its earthly origins; before long it’ll all be a dark chocolaty brown compost, indistinguishable worm fodder. About all we can do to keep this from being mere memory is to press a few of the prettiest leaves as keepsakes and saving the rest with our cameras.
Biggest drawbacks now are how the denuded trees allow neighbor’s porch lights and less-than-lovely garden bits to intrude into my garden view and losing leaves’ muffling effect means the sounds from a faraway cattle feed lot and the closer highway’s hum of suburbanites fleeing the city after work are more noticeable.
No matter. Autumn is a time for raking and blowing leaves into mulch and leaf piles and musing around flickering flames fed by fallen twigs and branches. It’s good to welcome family, friends and passing neighbors lured up the path by the sweet scent of an autumn fire. Savoring a little calm down, away from the television’s stressful arguing and fighting.
The fallen leaves will be reincarnated in the spring for another go next year. But for now, I’m raking them into fun patterns and looking at improvements to my landscape so it works for me in the winter. A strategic new evergreen cedar or holly here or there, driveway junk pile cleaned up, new coat of paint on the front door, gentle scrubbing to brighten Granny’s concrete chicken, polishing the reflective gazing globe, raking the leaves from a neighbor’s trees into my compost bin.
Loved the fall foliage show, but glad that old man winter is putting a temporary stop to these autumn chores.
• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.