Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: A colorful curtain call for the garden

  • Rudbeckia flowers near the end of their season at the Northampton Community Garden on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pink cosmos in bloom at the Northampton Community Garden this week. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pink cosmos in bloom at the Northampton Community Garden this week. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Anemones are currently sending up their delicate pink and white flowers on wands that wave in the wind. FLICKR/DETLEF BECHER

  • Monk’s hood (Aconitum) blooms late in some gardens. FLICKR/NICK BALACHANOFF

Monday, October 25, 2021

This time of year, color in the garden seems to beckon with more urgency, as if to say, “Pay attention, because this is my last appearance of the season.”

I have some pink fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) that is blooming lavishly for perhaps the fourth time since its first flush of flowers in June. My Queen Elizabeth rose has also sent out a third set of buds, as if to defy the threat of a killing frost.

Yellow and burgundy threadleaf coreopsis are still going strong. I confess that I deadhead these plants with nail scissors when I’m in serious procrastination mode, and the plants reward my efforts with reinvigorated flowering.

Masses of golden black-eyed Susans (Rudbedkiahirta) are still holding forth in the back border along with the last lavender sprays of and buddleia.

But while these summer stalwarts are doing curtain calls, other plants are just stepping onto the stage. My Autumn Joy sedum is spectacular this year and looks particularly vivid in tandem with clouds of wild pale lavender asters. Anemones are sending up their delicate pink and white flowers on wands that wave in the wind. Chocolate Eupatorium (Joe Pye weed) that’s been biding its time all summer is suddenly covered with fuzzy white flowers that contrast nicely with lavender Russian sage that’s been flowering since early August.

Monk’s hood (Aconitum) blooms late in my garden. Maybe it’s waiting so it can have the stage all to itself. By the time it unfurls its shrouded purple blossoms, the Virginia creeper will be crimson and the foliage of the narrow-leafed bluestar (Amsonia) will become a golden cloud.

I still see occasional monarchs and swallowtails, but it’s the bees that now dominate the scene. I accidently disturbed a nest of yellow jackets a few weeks ago and paid the price dearly. These wasps are especially ornery this time of year, so be careful when you’re tidying up your beds for the winter. (More on that below.)

Chipmunks and squirrels are scurrying everywhere. They seem to be working overtime collecting acorns, walnuts, hickory nuts and various seeds that they store to sustain them through the winter.

I have always wondered how squirrels manage to remember where they’ve buried their nuts. It turns out that besides using their sense of smell, gray squirrels use a sophisticated strategy called “spatial chunking.” They hide their nuts in certain places, grouping them by type, so that, for example, walnuts are in one place, almonds in another. They will place the most highly prized nuts in an open area that’s more prone to predators, but less likely to be trafficked by other squirrels.

They also practice “deceptive stashing,” pretending to bury a nut in one place and then secretly stashing it somewhere else in order to fool other squirrels who might be watching. Who knew that squirrels were so clever?

Speaking of fauna, the Massachusetts Audubon Society announced in late August that the mysterious disease affecting the eyes of a wide variety of birds has abated, and it is now safe to bring out bird feeders and birdbaths again. We have a few neighborhood bears who make quick work of bird feeders, so the bird feeders will be kept inside until cold weather sends the bears into hibernation.

The birds will find plenty of sustenance in the wild until then. (By the way, some people think it’s bad for birds to have access to bird  feeders all year round. But this isn’t so, as long as feeders are kept clean.) In the meantime, I highly recommend splurging on a heated birdbath. There’s no more satisfying sight than birds enjoying a drink and a bath on a cold winter day.

Every fall we gardeners face the question of whether and how much to clean up our garden beds. Over the past 20 years, wisdom on this subject has shifted substantially. I used to follow the common advice to cut everything down so that I could “hit the ground running” in the spring.

While creating a clean palette was satisfying in some ways, I have welcomed the more recent trend to put off a lot of cleanup until spring. This includes leaving plants with seedheads untouched so that birds can feed on them through the winter. This also provides visual interest during the dormant months.

A bit of messiness in the garden provides habitat for over-wintering critters. Piles of plant debris on the edges of my property used to be eyesores, but now I see them as home to chipmunks, birds and other creatures seeking shelter from harsh winter weather. But we still need to get rid of diseased plants and clean up around peonies, roses and other flowers whose remnants invite fungal diseases.

And it’s never too late to weed ...

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.