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Leonard Moorehead, The Urban Gardener: The Fall Equinox

Sunday, September 24, 2017


We are gathered from celestial dust. Earth’s orbit ignores urban controversies, gravity embraces all, twice a year our planet’s axial tilt receives exactly 12 hours of sunlight and night. Humankind, great and small, cannot ignore the profound effects. Gardeners are well aware this is the turning point. For another 90 days we approach the nadir. Flora subsides into winter dormancy. Foliage becomes glorious. Pomp and circumstance are in order, asters and chrysanthemums launch the colorful parade, purples, pinks, gold, are their uniforms. Turf greens up, relieved from summer’s bare feet. Flush from the harvest, we turn towards cooler weather vigorous and strong. 

Many annuals and perennials prepare for this time. Annuals, such as zinnia, form seed heads easily saved for next spring. Select favorite colors and shapes, snip off the mature flower heads on sunny dry days and store in a cool, dry location. Never store seeds in closed containers, rather old fashioned paper lunch bags are the way to go. Mark each lunch bag with the seeds’ names and harvest year. Have fun and record on each storage bag personal remarks. Describe height, such as petite or giant. Indicate colors. Imbue impressions useful for future gardens, such as notable hummingbird activity, inscribe special moments. My dear Aunt Gert’s birthday, May 4, is the usual day Lilies of the Valley and azeleas bloom. Create a personal garden calendar, note best bloom weeks, preference for sun or shade, also include helpful hints, such as dry or moist soil right on the lunch bag. Always, if not evident from the seeds themselves, describe scent or in the case of herbs, medicinal applications. Sometimes, like lavender, they are the same. 

Seed savers are a special breed. Join their ranks. Felix Mendel saved beloved sweet peas, now popping seeds over their perennial seedbeds. His description of their habits is credited as the first explanation of genetics. Reverse the current trend towards smaller gene pools one plot at a time. Such honored practice enjoys a renaissance among gardeners. Heirloom varieties are their legacy. Trade and swap seeds, make new friends who appreciate elementary horticultural nuance. Puzzled for gifts? Treat others to packets of seeds. Have fun, illustrate packets. Introduce life’s wondrous cycle to children and give them tiny mustard seeds. Let them help in the garden. Shared activity together endures. 

Each seed is individual. Launch a lifetime fascination and carefully inspect the future. Nowhere is hope so loving. Consider our friends, the meaningful birds and butterflies. Gather milkweed pods. Save and plant them in out of the way corners as nurseries for Monarch butterflies. Who is immune to their epic migration across the Americas? Be slow to harvest sunflowers. Enjoy gold finches, chickadees, and cardinals as they feast upon heavy sunflowers. Do not envy their feast. The birds are not thorough, each spring volunteer sunflowers testify to their reckless haste. Thin out volunteer sunflowers and leave the most sturdy to mature and complete the perpetual cycle. 


Few urban gardeners have the space for monstrous pumpkins and grotesque Hubbard squashes. Nor do we have room for multi-colored Indian corn. Our focus is for the tight and narrow. 

Lavender is the answer. The most common is Lavendula augustifolia or simply, English lavender. Are you an eager composter? Are you compelled to incorporate as much organic matter into the soil as the panacea for vigorous growth? Resist the urge. Lavender thrives in sandy, drought prone sun scorched soil. Lavender is an old world émigré. Colonists brought it to N. America as part of their medicine chests. Lavender’s beauty beguiles the senses, sometimes white, most varieties are purplish-pink and inspired the name of the color. The short, shrub like plants concentrate fragrance within the flowers and small leaves. The foliage is, like its distinctive fragrance, a calming light grey green. Lavender has powerful anti-anxiolytic effects. 

Never much taller than 18”, lavender grows best besides rocks, among stony gravels and is outstanding adjacent to sidewalks and passageways. Clip off the flower stems and enjoy freshets of bloom from early summer until frost. The blooms dry well. Abandon chemical air fresheners and turn to lavender. The aroma only hints at its anti-septic powers. Ancient Romans bathed in lavender oil, the biblical “spikenard” Lavender heals skin abrasions and has no side effects. Stuff lavender among woolens and repel wool moths. A few sprigs tucked into pillows encourages a good night’s sleep. 

Sandy gravels respond well to compost and thick mulches. As humus increases the soil’s nutritional punch gardeners must look over their shoulders for cultivars who do not demand moisture or fertility. Wormwood and thyme likewise prefer fast drainage and low fertility. Lavender just won’t grow with “wet feet”. Like geraniums, lavender requires no irrigation nor fertilizers. It prefers direct sunshine and will grow in large pots. Groom leaves and blooms throughout the growing season. The plants will offer ever larger branched stems and more flowers. 

Extend the growing season past the equinox. Sow beets, Swiss chard and kale. Each anti-oxidant packed leaf will persist into cold weather. Ignore the irony, nutritious leafy green vegetables are not confined to early spring. Turn under cucumbers and tomatoes and replace with cabbage and broccoli. Frost improves their flavor. Mulch heavily and enjoy nutritious harvests right into winter. Intensive cultivation increases the productivity of small plots. Breath in the cooler fall air and grin. Fall is the most under rated garden season. 

Begin to tidy up the garden. Empty containers into garden plots. Incorporate leggy petunias or ornamental coleus into compost schemes. Consider the best sites for winter compost heaps. Remove topsoil and lay aside nearby on re-cycled burlap bags available from ubiquitous coffee shops. Tough organic materials such as cardboard boxes, are plentiful. Tear roughly apart, sandwich the materials between layers of topsoil. Moisten. Keep at it. Never throw meats or oils attractive to vermin into the compost heap. Be tidy. Do not fear overbuilding the heap. Microbes inoculate the raw materials upon contact. They will digest the multi-layered sandwich like compost heap throughout the upcoming winter. A much shrunken heap will yield fine humus for the spring equinox. Why lug around more compost than needed? Foster soil vitality on the spot and save time and labor. Your back will thank you. You’ll sleep better on lavender scented pillows as nor’easters howl and blizzards cover the garden under snowy blankets. Read to children, snug and warm inside, everyone can trust seeds will prevail until gravity exerts its powerful grip and Earth’s orbit swings into spring. 


Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence, Rhode Island. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.


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