Round Robin: Whirly-Birds

Signal Mountain, Tennessee–The fresh scent of nasturtiums is for me the defining scent of October, as coolness and moisture revive a fragrance smothered in the summer’s heat. The rest of the summer annuals are doomed, and they know it. The fat canopy of impatiens foliage thins, and the ceaseless white and pink flowers grow small and sparse, revealing an embarrassing spraddle of gawky, near-translucent stems of murky green.

The fuzzy blue ageratum, so billowy in August and September, is turning mostly to beige ghost-tufts, and what remains of the marigolds and dahlias persists among leaves browned off by the ravages of mildew or the inevitable summer blight. They know what’s coming, and they’re losing their spirit. The perennials, sensibly, have already abandoned the scene. At the feet of their dead stalks, they are preparing promising rosettes of growth for next year.

Nasturtiums, on the other hand, behave as if there were no tomorrow. Planted throughout my garden to ward off the aphids and other pests from the roses and the tomatoes, the nasturtiums bloom early, then sulk through the hot, dry late summer, only to revive and take off when the cool, moist weather arrives. Now they are swarming up into the thinning rose canes, and they blanket the spaces vacated when I unceremoniously plucked out the zinnias and cleome that had stopped blooming.

Called Whirlybird, these nasturtiums sport a variegated flower capable of all sorts of gradations on the same plant. A flower may be basically yellow, cream, orange, pink, or near rose, but each color shows streaks and blushes of the others. The effect is like a generous tablespoonful of marmalade set off among plump, round green leaves. Another kind, a bit more polite and tidy, has bluish leaves and intense, velvety red flowers, as well as a dreamer’s name–Empress of India. I like to drop a few of these into a clump of Whirlybird and try them in the cobalt blue bud vase or the cut glass decanter or the silver Scottish grog cup. In every setting, they look delicious.

October evenings, when the taste of frost is on the wind, I make my rounds, picking great fistfuls of pungent blooms in a lovely mournful nostalgia, as if these were the last flowers left on Earth. Eventually, I have to brush away fallen sweet gum and oak leaves, and then–for this year at least–one bouquet is the last.

Just as the nasturtiums are lusher than anything else at 40°F, at 32° they succumb faster than anything else. Not nipped, not singed, not set back: when they go, they go completely. In the first light on a still morning of frost, all their leaves and tendrils are sprawled flat, as limp as a plate of spaghetti, the bright flowers whitish and all but liquefied. After all, they were only fragrant air and green water.

There comes a time in the fall when it’s a relief to have the waiting and the cosseting over and done with. Just as I always feel guilty thinning out and discarding perfectly healthy but superfluous seedlings in the spring, in the fall I suffer pangs over whether to rip out a brave cosmos that’s still struggling to put out a few more stunted blooms. Frost relieves me of responsibility; I can clear the wreckage and proceed to planting spring bulbs with a clear conscience.

I’m grateful for a climate where things shut down and take a rest. In March, I’ll be crazy to get going again, but I do appreciate this season when it all ebbs and ends. It’s good to pull out, rake up, haul up the stakes and bundle them away into the shed, and lay everything to bed under a blanket of shredded leaves and grass. Then I can consign the rest of the leaves, debris, and nasturtium spaghetti to the compost pile to reinvent itself. The garden retreats into itself, offering passive surfaces–slanted patterns of sun and shade or wet monochromes of gray and subtle rosy brown, with an occasional transforming crystallization of ice or snow.

Meanwhile, today, for the windowsill, I’ll gather one more spicy marmalade mound of Whirlybird–this time in my grandmother’s cranberry glass pitcher, set so the afternoon sun will spill through it. Then let the frost come on. It’s time.

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