Late Season

Volunteer violas have taken up positions on either side of a landscaping rock.

Years ago, reflecting on our move from the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado to the more rural center of the state, I wrote about planning the space that would be our garden in the mountains:

Despite the high elevation, short growing season, and abundant wildlife…we knew we wanted a garden, so we built a walled one, complete with concrete footers to keep out burrowing critters and metal flashing pinned to the top of the wall as a slippery barrier to those that climb. So far (knock on cinderblock), the garden has been unmolested by rabbits, deer, moles, elk, or gophers. Packrats, deer mice, and chipmunks occasionally manage to penetrate the defenses, but for the most part the garden is a sanctuary from any wildlife that does not fly. The wall holds heat, extending the growing season, and it shelters the garden from desiccating winds…. (From “My Life as a Weed,” in Between Urban and Wild)

The garden in 2004, when more of its bones were showing.

The garden walls square off an L-shaped building formed by the barn and adjoining cabin, which block winds coming out of the west or north. We eventually figured out that chipmunks and packrats get in by climbing eight feet up the stucco on the front of the barn and running along the metal rail that supports the rolling barn doors. From the end of that perch, a correctly calculated hop delivers them around the gutter downspout and onto the top of the garden wall, on the far side of the flashing. I’ve designed a barrier to block this maneuver, but haven’t gotten it built yet, since a rodent enterprising enough to figure out the route only comes along every few years.

Bears do not deploy such elaborate tactics. They’re plenty smart, but they rely on brute strength to haul themselves up and over the six-and-a-half-foot wall, provided there’s a partially-composted food reward on the far side, which is why I no longer keep a compost bin inside the garden.

The area within the wall is my primary space for growing vegetables in summer, but I am not a subsistence grower. In fact, I’m quite distracted as a gardener, seemingly incapable of keeping myself on task for the entirety of a growing season—even if it’s short. This lack of attentiveness may be why I don’t fuss when groundcovers and flowering plants push into the raised beds theoretically reserved for comestibles. Even when the garden doesn’t produce a lot to eat, the spirit of the space is fecund.

Mule deer, through the kitchen windows.

The garden wall is the sort of good fence that makes good neighbors: I can grow stuff and cohabitate with wildlife with relative equanimity. This matters a lot this time of year, when the grasses are straw-like in color as well as texture, and shrubs and forbs are just plain old sticks. There’s been a gang of mule deer bucks loitering around our place for many weeks now, and if it weren’t for the wall they would have long ago eaten the kale, beets, carrots, and Italian parsley still growing after last month’s killing frost.

They would have eaten more decorative elements in the garden, too, down to bare nubs. Thanks to the wall, then, we’ve been enjoying the fall-blooming saffron crocus, with their pretty lenticular petals cupped around bright orange sexy parts. Their grassy leaves faded and died back months ago, so the pale lavender flowers poke up unheralded from bare earth or through the brown strands of dead daylily leaves, uncanny and charming.

The pincushion flower I planted a year or two ago has settled into its home near the greenhouse door, where it’s still mounting pale blue pom-poms on short wiry stems. Like the saffron crocus, conventional gardening wisdom holds that the plant shouldn’t survive as a perennial in this zone, but it’s happy in the sheltered microclimate created by the garden’s walls. The stems are short, but that’s okay—the flowers don’t have any other foliage to rise above during these abbreviated November days.

Next to the outside corner of the cold frame, calendula plants that haven’t frozen yet are still sporting daisy-ray flowers in bright blaze orange. I’ve never seen them blooming so late, and so had not made the connection between that color and the vests and hats the hunters don this time of year.

More plentiful, and more randomly scattered, clumps of violas and pansies are still contentedly growing, blooming like crazy, and dropping the seeds that will ensure their reappearance next spring. I haven’t planted any new ones in years, and I’ve stopped deadheading or trying to control—or predict—where they’ll come up.

Meanwhile, other perennial plants are relaxing toward their dormant season. Their leaves decorate the edges of planting beds and flagstone and pea gravel paths with a low-slung display of late fall color: alpine strawberries in yellow, sedum in deep red, columbine still holding onto green, penstemon and thyme in burgundy nearing on purple, native pussytoes and partridge feather tanacetum in soft silvery green.

We knew when we built it that the walled garden would offer peace of mind by keeping most of the wildlife at bay. I suppose I imagined the garden as a functional space in its short growing season, but I didn’t give much thought to what it would be like in the other eight or nine months of the year. Gardening catalogs like to tout plants that offer “year-around interest.” Sheltered from a windswept and arid sweep of land, our little botanical island might not qualify as “interesting” for a full twelve months of the year, but with serendipity and sturdy walls as my gardening partners, it’s getting awfully darned close.

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