Thursday, November 30, 2023

Changing Impressions: Light in a Fall Garden



"Change is a measure of time and, in the autumn, time seems speeded up. What was is not and never again will be; what is is change." Edwin Way TealeCircle Of The Seasons



Noon October light illuminates a panel of stained glass inside the garden shed


We tend to think of our gardens as constants, as entities expressing a distinct character that persists from day to day. As gardeners, we work hard to create that sense of enduring character. But within the garden's confines, despite all our efforts at ordering this space, change remains the norm. Change in a garden takes many forms: growth and decay, additions and deletions, our deliberate plans skewed by nature's hidden operations. But beyond these elemental forces another agent of change is always at work, adding transient touches from moment to moment, varying the way objects appear to our eye and the impressions they leave. Time of day, season of the year and, above all, atmospheric conditions modify the light we see things through, affecting how gardens look and feel at any given moment. The sun's mobility, itself varying along a continually changing arc, modifies the light-yield of day and season, lengthening or shortening the shadows cast or dispensing with them entirely when the sky is overcast.


Light varies by day and season, constantly changing our impressions of nature


As gardeners who get to observe their charges in so many different lights, we come to appreciate subtle gradations that modify how the garden appears. Light structures mood in the garden. The simple act of watching turns out to be an enjoyable experience that can be cultivated, even as our hands are busy with seasonal garden tasks. One looks forward to seeing how nature is going to reveal itself each day, especially when the signs at daybreak appear promising. As we grow into our gardens over the years, this practice of observing effects grows on us, ultimately revealing itself as a practical way to live in the moment (as opposed to always living towards the future, so not being in the present at all - which many now seem to do). What better way to live in the moment than to observe its particular qualities as manifested by our immediate surroundings? 


"The garden is never fully under human control. However one may strive after a finished perfect 'product', it must always be illusory – or at the best, ephemeral. The garden resists reification, insists upon process. It is always unfinished. A fixed result may be desirable, but it is always elusive." The Garden As An Art, Mara Miller, 1993


One key to living in the moment is the perception that things actually do appear differently in different lights - and, that the way they appear affects their impact on us. Of course, we have to be able to pause long enough to notice such things, remaining still long enough for an impression to register. If we can do this, then certain conditions will command our attention, and at special moments perhaps lead us to experience feelings of awe and delight. This way of approaching light's effects mimics the turn taken by the school of painting known as Impressionism - recognizing that it's the light of the moment that renders a scene memorable. Viewed from this angle, daylight offers a living theatre for garden viewing, one that can absolutely captivate the eye on special days. Sometimes, when conditions are right, bearing witness to atmospheric changes is like having a front row seat at a show nature is conducting for us. On one such magical day in October 2016, I decided to try and capture a succession of the light's changing effects throughout the course of the day.


Strawberry Tree (arbutus unedo) berries


Changing impressions caused by evolving daylight are there to be enjoyed during all seasons, but fall is a very special time. Certainly not every day is evocative in the way this one would be (some days display an enervating sameness of effect that drains much of the magic, especially say in a dreary November). But other days, and those not infrequently with October's mood swings, generate absolutely memorable effects all day long. The photos below are taken during the third week of October in Victoria, in conditions that were ideal for this form of garden watching: the observer available to the day, a variety of changing atmospheric effects on offer, the day ultimately inducing a glow in everything light fell on. I happened to be working from home that day, so could witness the developing moments. As a result, the scene was always visible and immediately observable whenever I looked up and out. I hope the photos and text capture some of the engaging spectacle on display that magical day.



A misty start after a long night of rain, the garden drenched and green


The day dawned through a light mist, after a night of sustained rainfall. The shot above catches the scene just before nine o'clock in the morning. I'm working inside and looking out through the kitchen windows now and then. One effect of mist is a general softening of things, as it diffuses available light while rendering the air itself visible. I had a feeling this mist would dissolve fairly quickly into open sunlight and was intrigued to watch the transition play out. I decided to record these early conditions, so I leaned out a kitchen window and brought the garden up closer using a telephoto lens. The mist in the shot below, while still thick enough to render the background details hazily, is already being infiltrated by October's golden sunlight.  


Similar angle, sun now starting to rise above the mist, fall colours flooding in


Morning mists occur periodically in fall and winter in our marine climate, which sees the jet stream push clouds and storms in off the Pacific Ocean and across our small peninsula. Mists and fogs are usually associated with an air mass that's come to a standstill, which we experience essentially as a motionless cloud perched above the land. This stillness and the shrouding effect of mist adds an air of mystery to the surroundings (that is, if one doesn't have to travel in it!). Apparently the physical phenomenon of mist is caused by temperature differentials that trigger evaporation of moisture from land (or sea) to air, concentrated and compressed by atmospheric inversion caused by an air mass above holding it stationary. When this happens, especially during parts of the year when the sun's arc is lower in the sky, solar energy has to penetrate the mist for longer before dissipating it. (In Vancouver's West End, fog combined with inversion can persist for days on end, enclosing the visible world to the point of claustrophobic unreality). The mists we see here sometimes blanket broad areas of land, but at other times are limited to lower-lying pockets or sequester over the straits where they complicate navigation. To someone on land, settled in a secure location, the presence of mist adds ethereal effect to landscape, especially as it gradually thins and daylight breaks through. This was exactly the dynamic at work that day. 


                    "Retard the sun with gentle mist;
                                        Enchant the land with amethyst."  
                                          Robert Frost, 'October', 1915



At this point I was busy working and only occasionally glancing at the day's sights through the windows. Light-wise however, things were moving along dynamically. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the light turned more lustrous and golden, and with it the fall palette of reds, yellows, oranges and browns began to make a stronger impression. Bright sunlight falling on a garden drenched with rain adds a kind of pulsing resplendence to the scene, at points making it appear paradisical. Our fall sunshine can be brilliant, but not so intense as to quickly dry the landscape, which means Edenic impressions of verdure and vibrant colour are prolonged. Through the flow of moments the surroundings simply glow with radiant energy. Check below how the fall colours are beginning to smoulder as the sun's rays fully break through (there's only the faintest hint of lingering mist in the distant background now).


Suddenly the mist dissipates, sunlight is dominant, and fall colours blaze


The sun's appearance renders the world into blocks of contrasting light and shade. Periodically I look up and notice that the shade line running across the back garden is retreating slowly eastward as the sun gradually rises further above the roof, bathing ever more of the ground plane in intense fall light. 


Rising in the southeast, the sun casts angled light on oaks, lilacs and shed front


From my seat at an island counter, generously sized kitchen windows play the role of framing views that appear astonishingly rich and vibrant. The thought occurs how fortunate we are to have such direct visual access to the garden from inside the building, and how rare and unusual this degree of wall-porosity actually is in a world of houses designed to face inwards. Ample windows make walls seem semi-transparent, tipping the usual distancing effect towards one of connection. I quietly thank the building's designer for so creatively linking inside to outside, affording me a pleasurable sense of immediacy without ever having to leave my seat.


View-framing window with scenic ensemble

Shade and shadow effects balance the sun's progressive illumination of the scene

Come time for morning break, I stop working to make tea and then wander about to inspect the changing scenes framed through other windows. I am intrigued enough to continue recording more of these engaging impressions, rendered rather dreamily through the wavy lens of old glass.  It's towards eleven o'clock when the next photos are made.


Window scene looking south across a tangle of shrubs


Mossy green limbs of Garry Oak, looking south-east through living room windows


After another work bout, I decide to head outside for a breath of fresh air and to sample the changing impressions from closer up. The day registers as awe-inspiring autumn at its entrancing best: echoes of summer's forceful energy are tinged by the faintest hint of winter's approach in the sharpening plays of shadow and light. While the front garden (down slope in front of the house) is now fully illuminated by high sun from the south, the back garden still reveals broad areas locked in full shade. The contrast between zones is stark, the oak trees and garden furnishings casting intriguing, mobile shadow patterns into the sunny parts of the scene. The fact the sun is much lower in the sky during fall equinox lengthens the shadows cast by objects. There are also fewer hours of sunlight now, so the daily progression of changes is more compressed and rapid, sensitizing us to its movement. That shortening day, with its less intense solar energy, is what triggers leaves to stop manufacturing chlorophyll, in turn prompting their gradual turn from lush green towards the spectrum of fall colours. The sunlight however, while less intense, remains brilliant, but not in the blinding, colour-fading way of overhead summer sun. Look at the shadows cast by oak limbs on the bay tree in the next photo, imparting a slightly fanciful quality to the scene.


Brilliant sunlight coupled with deep shade effects and sharp shadow lines


High overhead, bathed in full sunlight, a tableau of moss and lichen covers the oak limbs like a shaggy carpet. This secretive world returns to visible life when fall rains swell its array of inhabitants back to prominence. As I observe them now, glowing in glorious sunlight after soaking rains, the thought occurs that as gardeners we really should be cultivating this world of plants much more consciously for their subtle seasonal effects. While they may be a little lost in the colour-orgy of full-on autumn, by November their presence will assert itself in welcome ways. I'm reminded again what that canny garden-maker Francis Bacon counselled so long ago now (Of Gardens, 1625): "there ought to be gardens for all months in the year, in which, severally, things of beauty may be in season". Here on our suddenly damp west coast, mosses, lichen and their ilk should qualify for more attention in our fall gardens, as they are both beautiful and coming into season as the leaves disappear.



An intriguing domain of lichen and mosses that recedes to a trace in summer


Come mid-day, I'm briefly free to again observe the moment's changing impressions. The sun is now more fully overhead, the direction of its light gradually contracting the scene's shaded zones, shortening shadows and further scrambling their effects. At this time of year though, given the elevation of the house on a ridge on a hill, parts of the scene do remain shaded through most of the day, emphatically so in the day's intense sunlight. These effects, akin to painter's chiaroscuro, are central to the magic and mystery of the season's changeable light.


Lilac's yellowing leaves through diamond-paned glass

Shadows contracting slowly, light intensifying elements of the composition

Fruiting cotoneasters displaying seasonal red and orange colours

The afternoon segment of the sun's daily rotation brings subtle new effects in train. Moving into the southwest now, it casts sharply angled light from a gradual change of direction. Come mid-afternoon, the shifting direction of light causes the garden to appear quite differently. Specific combinations of elements within it seem to beckon the eye at this point. For reasons I don't comprehend, the pictures are now virtually composing themselves. Perhaps this sort of light makes every possible scene into a picture?


Scenes seem to suggest themselves to the eye now

The tiny pink flowers between oak and 'glacial erratic' are escaped cyclamen

As the afternoon wears on, changing sun angles continue to subtly modify scenic effects - I am shooting across the direction of sunlight in the next photos, so trees and shrubs appear back-lit by sunlight coming from the west, causing a glowing aura to appear along their limbs. 


Strong shadow line along the curve of boxwood,  golden aura edging tree limbs

Sense of peaceful repose, fall colours still glowing in the later afternoon sun

The sun is now fully in the southwest and descending rapidly towards the horizon, but its rays still just clear the treed backdrop to reach deep into both front and back gardens.


Caramel leaves and mossy limbs through wavy glass

Lichen and moss backlit in later afternoon light from the southwest

From time to time throughout the day I've also noticed the earth's fall scent rising from recently moistened ground. This earthy redolence is perhaps amplified by our mucking about in flower beds at this time of year, digging out dwindling plants, mixing in fresh compost, and replanting grounds with renewed hope of good results next year. This distinctive scent is also conditioned by the exotic smell of caramel-toned oak leaves brought down by the night's rainfall, some now dried sufficiently to scrunch again under foot.


Neighbours' maple smoulders next to box and bay


Near the end of the day's direct overhead light, the remaining rays have the effect of liquid gold on the house. Now about to slip behind the tall fir trees of Marigold Park lying to the west and so become diffuse before the long twilight, the sun splashes a final play of this golden light across the south wall of the house.


Last beams of golden light splash against the building as the sun descends westwards

This magical fall day would conclude with a long period of more indirect light effects, which also commanded my attention but which, at my skill level at least, are less susceptible to rendering effectively as photos. So, echoing the abrupt way the sun disappears at day's end in fall, my photo-essay draws to a close here too. My eyes were obviously beguiled by the day's effects, an experience I was open to despite being occupied by working from home. It afforded me the opportunity to see and record the garden light show as I observed it throughout the course of the day. 


"Our vision these days is attuned to the virtual rather than the visible, to images rather than appearances, and to representations rather than phenomena." Robert Pogue Harrison, On the Lost Art of Seeing, in Gardens: An Essay On The Human Condition. 

Making oneself available to being engaged by such effects is apparently becoming harder for people today (many now are indifferent to their actual physical surroundings, other than as contexts for the immediacy of selfies). There is a clear preference for the distractions of the virtual world over the actual physical world's changeful appearances. I gather I'm rather old-fashioned in this regard, if anything trying to sharpen my sense of direct engagement with season and landscape from minute to minute. But I should acknowledge my own sleight of hand in this mode of presentation, as I am in fact using images (hence employing a tool of the virtuality I just lamented) to try and convey the potential of being present in person to precisely such effects. I leave it to you to judge whether that worked or not - my intention was only to share my home garden in a way that reflects the day's unique effects and encourages further observing. 



Books For Looks:

Circle of The Seasons - The Journal of a Naturalist's Year, Edwin Way Teale, 1953.

Of Gardens, Francis Bacon, 1625.

Gardens - An Essay on the Human Condition, Robert Pogue Harrison, 2008.

The Garden As An Art, Mara Miller, 1993.


Saturday, November 18, 2023

Return of the moist-garden



 "Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.” Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May



Fall's dramatic changes prefigure the garden's next iteration


In many places in the Northern Hemisphere, November is an inhospitable month that signals the beginning of winter’s icy grip. Here in temperate coastal Victoria, November marks the end of one garden year and the beginning of another, forcing complex transitions on both garden and gardener. The mood itself can be a little sombre, as November is often the debut of our wet winter, typically bringing stretches of showery overcast skies punctuated by periodic downpours. By week three back in 2009, it had already dropped more than twice the average November rainfall, and still it came down! The run of rainy-grey days can feel psychologically confining, signalling the season of ‘affective disorder’ in which mood serves as a drag on initiative. Driven by shortening days and less intense light, gloom eats further into the meagre quantity of fading daylight hours. Feelings of hopelessness can take root if this weather continues without breaks. Some lucky ones take this as a cue to decamp for sunnier climes. In the event that no such reprieve is possible, consolations simply must be actively sought out.
Monochrome light, typical of our November, has its own unique beauty


A fire burning gamely in the grate is far and away the best counter to any signs of cabin fever, but there are also a few consoling aspects to the rains themselves. One is the welcome sound they make at night: a soft drumming on the roof, metal downspouts gurgling audibly with runoff. Such sounds cause sleep to come more readily, driving it deeper and making it last longer for those fortunate enough to be sheltered in dry houses. Cloudy skies also darken the night hours, holding our circadian rhythms at bay better and for longer. After the short nights and early starts of summer, whose habitual sleep deprivation carries on into early fall, sleep is now more sustained and restorative. In longer stretches of wet weather the urge to hibernate and slow the pace of life also affords a certain pleasure – if we allow ourselves to give in to it! And while November can be really wet, even its dampest iterations offer some sunny breaks. And at such moments, when the sun suddenly appears and moss on the oaks glows in response, one is immediately reminded that seasonal chores await attention, and also finds that the energy for tackling them often returns. Sunlight has that sort of effect on gardeners.


Subtle November light draws out pastel tints in cool, moist landscape

Even the wettest of Novembers hosts some sunny stretches

Rainfall from November through February delivers the bulk of Victoria’s annual water supply, stored in the Sooke Lake reservoir as run-off from the surrounding hills. However, feeling put upon by  grey skies and the amount of rain still to come, gardeners are not unduly concerned about water storage at this point in the year. We’ll be more grateful when suddenly we need the water for plants wilting from drought, as happens rapidly once our climate swings over to dryness. For the moist coastal paradise we inhabit for part of the year rests on an ongoing climate paradox: the illusion of persistent verdure in winter is cast rudely aside when spring turns dry and green surroundings fade suddenly to buff. Drought takes hold quickly, sometimes as early as late March, then stretches far into autumn before rain falls again and the land greens up once more. Landscape veers from lush spring plain to baked summer prairie in what seems a mere blink. Grasses retreat deep into their roots and only reappear once fall rains entice them back, often far into October (or nowadays even later).


Dry landscape palette: wheatstraw and caramel backed by arborial greens


A wet-dry climate triggers abrupt changes in the landscape, requiring gardeners to be adaptable. Fall rains typically intensify throughout November and continue on into December, often our wettest month. Experientially though, November often feels wetter than December, as it tends to be less punctuated by stretches of open sky (2013 turned out to be an anomaly, a November that was more like a December). Grey, dreary November weather can send even seasoned residents packing, in search of sunnier days nearer the equator to offset the blahs induced by contracting daylight hours. Yet despite November's overall greyness, the return of greenery to lawns along with the lush mosses and striking lichen that suddenly adorn the oaks are stunning whenever the sun appears. The realm of plants glistening moistly in brilliant sunlight forms a captivating spectacle. And we do get some sunny breaks even in November, due to our fortunate location on the periphery of the Olympic rain shadow. Coupled with a marine climate that moderates winter's effects and keeps us free of snow most years, we see many more such sunny stretches here than either Vancouver or Seattle.


Sunny November breaks dramatize the mustardy dust lichen on mortared seams


Come wet, grey November our climate more resembles that of England, easily misleading us into thinking the English garden is an appropriate design inspiration. This is a powerful illusion, one that's comforting psychologically, but an ecological misfit over the long dry season yet to come. Not surprisingly, many gardeners do strive to model local gardens on rhododendrons, azaleas, hydrangeas, hostas and other plants needing year-round moisture in order to really thrive. But this choice is often to the detriment of plants (and the dismay of garden admirers) come June, when green has exited the landscape with jarring finality and moisture-loving foliage flags and yellows. 



Winter colour from hips clustered on ruddy stems of native Nootka Rose


But not so the native, drought-adapted trees like oaks, firs, big-leaf maples and the exotic arbutus, nor their natural understory of snowberry, Oregon grape, Indian plum, Nootka Rose and ocean spray, forming pleasing thickets wherever we allow them space. Some gardeners do succeed in making facsimiles of English garden borders work tolerably well hereabouts, abetted by sufficient moisture and mulch to keep their preferred plants from burning out. But this is a running challenge that takes tremendous investments of time and resources to meet (one that is getting worse by the year in the era of climate change). If I’ve learned anything from decades of gardening in Victoria, it’s to fight neither site nor climate by preferring exotic plants. I will always hanker after hydrangeas, but in this climate and on our site, the juice just isn’t worth the squeeze.


Cotoneaster berries add warmth to autumn colours

Still, for five-to-seven months a year, depending upon seasonal variations, we do seem to be kith-and-kin of moist-England and so its traditional landscape park can seem a fitting Ur-garden. This illusion intensifies during our long, moist coastal spring, which thanks to warm marine air comes early, develops exquisitely slowly, and in many years enables us to enjoy clear separation of the early, middle, and late varieties of many types of plants (among my favorites: quince, iris, lilac and peony, along with simple versions of all the spring bulbs). This slow-release spring affords exceptional flowering complexity across our entire regional plant palette. Places that jump right into full-on spring from the throes of frigid winter, like my native Ontario, never witness our slowly unfolding panorama of spring blooms.

Daffodils flower early, so are subject to weather reversals, but revive quickly

Daffodils, bergenia and quince provide early flowering incidents

And how England-like it is when the bulb clans launch their succession of cameo appearances, starting with aconites, snowdrops and crocuses, then inching into daffodils and jonquils, before heading over-the-top in the full colour-riot of tulips. Until the end of April in some years, and occasionally even as late as early-to-mid June, we inhabit oak parklands carpeted in meadow flowers like camas that can be edged with magnificent shrubbery borders. And then ‘poof’, the grasses begin to die back, buff and caramel tones appear, and suddenly we’re as bone-dry as southern California. This plunge, cold-turkey, into near-desert conditions is not for the faint of heart - it can only be countered by designs that rely more on drought-tolerant plantings coupled with drip-irrigation systems. There can be as many as six or seven - and certainly not less than three-and-a-half - months of these parched conditions, during which many plants need regular watering just to survive. On sites with thin, spare soils like ours, stunting is a possibility that stalks the garden. In such conditions it pays to minimize the number of plants needing their hands held from day-to-day. Finally, after the long months of dessication and frantic watering, fresh rains effect a gradual return to greenery, culminating in these very November downpours just now weighing so heavily on my mood.


Dry landscape: beautiful, but not for gardening

November – hardly the most promising month for getting outside – also sees the bulk of our annual leaf-fall on the west coast. By end of week one in 2010, the Garry Oaks had already shed two-thirds of their leaves. By the end of week three, after major wind storms, they were all pretty much down. Individual specimens of sweet gum, big-leaf maple, and trembling aspen may hold their colourful displays a while longer, but by the last week of November, most leaves are down and carpeting lawns and beds, or piling up in wind-driven drifts in corners and crevices. The year 2013 saw a bumper crop of deciduous leaves, courtesy of a long moist spring – a boon in the garden as leaves are the principal ingredient of fall compost, which is easily made ready in time for dressing spring beds. But these same leaves can seem a bane when weather and lack of inclination interfere with clearing them from the scene. And every five to seven years, in what's called a mast year, the oaks drop an unusually heavy crop of acorns, necessitating separate collection and complicating the job of assembling leaves for composting (especially if the compost is a cool one, as acorns germinate readily in cool heaps).



After many November rainstorms, nearly all the oak leaves are down


When I moved back to Victoria 35 years ago, the accepted wisdom here was that there was no alternative but to burn the oak leaves. Accordingly, most back yards came equipped with a metal burn barrel. Fall typically gave rise to prolonged periods of largely ineffectual burning – ‘smouldering’ may be more exact - reaching a crescendo in November and December. Back then, people spent days on end stuffing paltry quantities of leaves into barrel burners, only to release copious clouds of dense blue-grey smoke. It was widely believed that oak leaves were hard to decompose (they aren't), so burning was held to be the only effective way to dispose of them - a truth belied by the slow, choking results but clung-to firmly nonetheless. Wet leaves simply don’t burn well, full stop. In those days, many November weekends were ruined by ambient air too smoky to work outside in. Paradoxically, and perversely, the few sunny breaks in an often-gloomy month were eclipsed by plumes of thick smoke. Today such fires are wisely banned in suburban Saanich, there’s greater knowledge of how to effectively compost oak leaves (they break down in three months if properly handled) and our enlightened municipality now offers free curbside collection of piled leaves to anyone disinclined to work them on site. I myself rarely have spare leaves for pick up, but the program is a godsend for many residents. To me it’s more satisfying to return them as finished compost to waiting beds in early spring, and remarkably easy once you acquire the knack.


Saanich crew using a vacuum hose to collect leaves raked to the curb


Recently, on a November day with weather fronts scrimmaging determinedly back and forth above, I felt frustrated by the gloomy persistence of showery overcast. Then just near the point of despair, the clouds parted, the sun appeared, and the idea of raking leaves moved from abstract burden to immediate boon. Working outside, exposed to benign weather, on a productive task at a congenial pace, to me offers consummate enjoyment of gardening. Of course, nothing compares with an outcome that advances the overall composition, but workaday gardeners tend to see their creations more while carrying out specific tasks than as the leisured observers of completed wholes appealed to by coffee-table garden books.  No matter, because we finally get to be out in it, making it, refining it, enjoying the creative act of tweaking the garden's next iteration.


Raking is a prelude to more-thorough tidying that emphasizes structure
Form gradually re-emerges, the garden's bones appearing in sharper relief


By this point in the garden year the ground is often too sodden for many activities, the soil simply too damp to be worked. Bulb planting and division for next spring’s early show have ideally been done long before it gets this wet. I say ‘ideally’ because I rarely get to these activities in a timely manner, so often find myself waiting for clear stretches that drain soils enough to allow planting (which hardly optimizes results). Raking leaves on wet lawns is far more feasible as an activity, so long as one has water-proof boots ready to hand. Duck boots with warm felt inserts are highly prized by local gardeners, as they enable winter work.



Mosses that recede to rinds in summer bulk up suddenly in wetter weather

The return of the rains and the lessening of sun intensities revives another plant realm that should be made welcome in our gardens (if not so much on our roofs and in our lawns): a complex ecology of mosses, lichen and kindred plants that adds texture and subtle coloration to rock outcrops and tree limbs. Contracted to mere rind by the long summer drought, moss is in fact a sponge that bulks up quickly with rainfall and adds a unique aerial dimension to the returning greenery.


A complex ecology of unique life-forms

Moss serves as green backdrop for the emergence of many mushrooms and lichen, coating tree trunks and limbs in its glowing aura whenever sun follows rain. Powder or dust lichen appear as spattered flecks on oak trunks and spread themselves extensively on rock outcrops and stone walls, preferring spots that offer sun and damp in vertical planes. 


Tufts of moss flecked with lipstick lichen tubes


These subtle plants add depth and dimension to the return of fall colours: aquas, greeny-blues, mustard yellows, burnt orange and off-whites among them. They comprise a mysterious world involving complex and poorly understood dependencies with algaes and molds, one I don't comprehend but whose presence adds extensive elegance to the winter garden. If we offer them suitable habitat, such as exposed rocks and Garry oaks, they will gradually occupy it as naturally as they do our wilder spaces.


Colonies of mosses and crepe-like lichen adorn moist rocks

Spreading mass of lichen appears to incorporate multiple organisms


I’ve been known to select a rock with an embryonic lichen colony on it to impart a sense of belonging and long-habitation to a new garden wall. There are many such lichen to choose from, with over 1300 species identified in here in B.C., classed into orders by their form: dust, crust, scale, leaf, club, shrub and hair. Lichen proliferate widely in wilderness areas but have difficulty surviving full-on urban conditions. Suburban gardens hosting rocky outcrops and native species comprise more amenable milieu. Because these plants contribute subtly to overall effects, they don’t jump out with showy display but rather require discerning attention in order to appear to the eye. For me, noticing fungi, lichen and mosses is an active part of the return of looking in fall – part of being able to see the garden anew and so imagine fresh possibilities. Because these organisms emerge just as our deciduous trees lose their annual growth and head into winter dormancy, they embody a sense of fresh possibility and signal that nature's annual cycle is starting once again.


A strange world of life-forms that are extensive yet not erect or showy


Tidying and ordering the garden scene – however fleeting the effect in stormy November when ensuing weather buffets and rearranges things regularly – nonetheless brings fresh clarity to our arrangements. One begins to see the garden more clearly, as if it were somehow newly inspirited, and from here it's easier to visualize how it might be reorganized to appear come spring. For it is against this clarifying background that spring’s changes pencil themselves gradually into the landscape. The garden’s bones – its paths, walls, steps and the plants used architecturally to shape spaces and provide form in winter – come into sharper relief with the operations of tidying and pruning, the entire undertaking unified by the returning greenery. Garden objects made to recede by blankets of leaves and fall litter suddenly rise to the eye as context is restored. Feelings of repose and fitness slowly return.


Raking and pruning re-establish and clarify the garden's structure


Pruning is another activity awaiting periodic breaks in the rain, a time when secateurs, loppers, hand saws and ladders make their appearance. Some of summer’s luxuriance usually still needs paring back – shrubs like santolina, rosemary, spirea and others benefit from pruning to shape, gaining in longevity and svelteness whatever is lost in bulk. Boxwood also responds positively to a tightening of its now more-blowsy form, while spent blooms need removing and perennials should be cut back to the soil. All of the berrying plants, here especially the many types of cotoneaster and pyracantha adorning the site, benefit from pruning after the birds have stripped them clean. All this clipping and pruning helps solidify the garden's underlying structure, which is buried from early spring on by waves of quickening growth and floral exuberance. Once greater simplicity reigns, the eyes are readied to appreciate colour again against a wash of differentiated greens.



Maple leaves strewn here and there by November storms


Raking leaves stands as one of my favourite ways of working in the fall garden. With deciduous trees it really cannot be avoided anyway, so we may as well learn to enjoy it. Raking lends itself to rhythmic movement, the rake's tines sending swaths of leaves fluidly into lines and piles. A good metal rake is indispensable if one is actually going to get lost in the exercise. I often see people struggling awkwardly with the rigid plastic rakes so common nowadays. No wonder they’d rather avoid the activity - fighting the tool you're using is never fun! Rigid plastic isn’t springy enough for the task at hand, transforming it into something more to be endured than enjoyed. If you have a plastic rake, ditch it right now and go find yourself a classic metal-headed, wood-handled rake (one with springs attached to a spreader bar, so the rake has some dynamism when you send the leaves towards your growing pile). Choose a width that fits the spaces you’ll be working in; too wide and you won’t find it convenient to use. A small hand rake is also useful for clearing beds and crevices, and for loading leaves into bins for transport once they've been raked up. You’ll be amazed what a difference quality makes - how much more control over the action you develop, how much more gets done in a given amount of time. With developing skills, your metal rake will soon be your passport to a workspace known as ‘flow’. Flow indicates a state of mind where skills, purpose and ambient conditions all thrive together, allowing outcomes to be achieved while enjoyment is taken. This space is susceptible to cultivation, just like the garden itself. In time you’ll find yourself immersed in the activity, body and rake working as one, dancing the leaves along into lines and heaps.


Leaves provide us with the raw material for compost-making

The ultimate reward of raking is the stock of raw material accumulated for fresh compost making. In periods of clear weather, I moisten the caramel-coloured oak leaves with a hose, coat them lightly with dampened soil and blend in any suitable clippings from our fall tidying of beds and shrubberies. The moistened soil scuffs the leaves, opening their surface to invasion by the micro-organisms that ultimately break them down. This labour of compost-making is among the most satisfying and enjoyable known to gardeners – easy to accomplish, yet not for rushing through. In November, it’s a matter of aligning free time with breaks in the weather so compost can comfortably be worked up. If it doesn't get done in November, there's always December. Taking it slowly and methodically, establishing a rhythm involving sequential acts of watering, mixing and piling, is the ideal way to make a compost heap.


Garden shed, afternoon light, emerging compost heap by fence


Composting uses natural agents to break down organic matter like leaves. Because we don't have enough nitrogen-rich material to create a hot compost in fall (the best way of killing weed seeds and breaking down coarse material) I build one that works with the cooler forces of decomposition. I endeavour to keep seeds out of it entirely (a moving target that) and not to inadvertently introduce plant roots that could re-establish themselves in a cool heap (for example, chunks of snowberry root). My goal is to furnish a tempting hotel for worms and the many micro-organisms that will, over the ensuing months, consume every scrap of green kitchen and garden waste we can mix into the leaves. Forget about buying compost starters, as they’re unnecessary. It’s a matter of getting a workable ratio of green (nitrogenous) and brown (carboniferous) materials, then combining the mix with garden soil and sufficient moisture to get the heap going. You bias your pile via its composition towards either being hot or cool; this is a choice based on the feedstock you have on hand, one with implications for what consumes the edibles on offer. Available nitrogen is decisive; if you have little, you are perforce running a cold heap. Once made up, your pile largely takes care of itself with periodic forking over. You can make quite workable compost heaps with only soil and carboniferous materials, with the green element added as kitchen scraps and garden clippings become available.


Mossy oaks tinged with frost, bathed in sun

We rely on our compost heap to recycle everything from the kitchen that’s not fat, meat, or a dessert leftover. Worms absolutely love coffee grounds, by the way, and will go out of their way to birth their young on them. The only trick in compost making is to establish the pile with a good balance of materials and sufficient moisture to make a virtuous cycle. Then it’s ready to take as much green material as you care to throw into it, with only occasional forking-over for aeration and to keep the materials mixed. I feel that whether you do or don’t create a formal bin to contain the compost is a site- and person-specific choice. You can keep it as simple as building a pile directly on the ground, which is the method we use (this gives worms direct access to it). You may need to cover it with something in order to protect the nutrients against being flushed by rain, but be careful that your cover doesn't tempt rodents to set up shop in the heap (I tried this once, and that's exactly what happened)! When it comes time to fork it over (a natural accelerant) a heap on the ground is far and away the most convenient structure to deal with. Box and drum structures make it more awkward to mix and aerate, especially if you are dealing with any quantity of leaves. A pile that's accessible from all sides is most efficient, and can easily be remixed simply by forking it along a couple of feet.


Fissured oak bark and lichen on rock add feelings of age to the garden

I spend more time on raking and tidying in November than I do using this material to make up compost heaps. Raking along, I often find myself contemplating the challenges and opportunities of the winter months, which mostly lie ahead. Hardest of all is adapting to shortening days (winter solstice isn't until December 21st) along with the greater incidence of grey, wet conditions. And yet, to say ‘grey’ is to sentence November to a kind of dreary monotony that belies the beauty revealed at certain points. Grey light can indeed be cheerless and cold, but it can also convey monochrome subtleties to a discerning eye. It’s visually refreshing after summer’s busy colour competition to see nature through a more chaste lens. Then rather unexpectedly sunshine reappears, and the monochrome setting gives way to greenery set off by glistening fall berries, glowing mosses, and saturated barks.


Monochrome November light and clouds


Red and yellow pyracantha berries glow in warmer November light


Cotoneaster and pyracantha both produce scads of berries in these parts, colouring up as fall cools into early winter. But many other plants also berry or form hips, from roses and ornamental crabs to hawthorns, holly and some viburnums. The berry crop, though restrained when compared to the luxuriance of summer flowers, nonetheless echoes its theme of abundance. Deep reds, oranges, and yellows predominate, but delightful cranberry, coral and burgundy tones also show against the glistening greens.



Cotoneaster franchetii's salmony-red berries glow in November light

The season of moist weather comprises a subtle, somewhat melancholic, and strangely beautiful time on the west coast, a period that can prompt reflection on life’s glories and mysteries, its short duration, its potential for renewal. Autumn gives way gradually to winter's shorter days, while the period over Christmas often seems to bring snowy weather. But by mid-January, the rains return, temperatures resume their gradual rise, and nature is again in dynamic balance awaiting immanent change. Returning robins devour the last of the berry crop in late January and early February, stripping shrubs of these temporary tokens of the cycle of growth and decay. In the garden, life readies itself to surge anew as climate moderates and the ground remains moist. Conscious of all these factors, gardeners are reminded of the possibility of planning garden events to occur across four distinct seasons.



November light isn't only monochrome, but also sometimes glowing and burnished


Subtle colour harmony among rocks, leaves and berries after a recent rain


Moisture's return ultimately restores a balance and simplicity that’s entirely satisfying to contemplate. After relentless chasing of new growth in spring's quickening progression, and the ensuing retreat from summer's heat, fall offers a welcome restoration of repose in the garden. Repose can be described as a placid, serene, and peaceful feeling that's highly esteemed by gardeners. It’s the opposite of things that are loud, showy, bright, metallic, and harsh. Feelings of repose are amplified most when garden choices feel as if they belong where placed, a condition where harmony of relationship exists among all elements of the composition. In November and December, with such feelings of repose on the rise, it is possible to think again about garden design, to reflect on the experiences of the past year, and to tentatively draw new conclusions: what themes to emphasize more strongly, which plants to replace, what structures to create and effects to amplify next year.



One moist-garden activity is taking cuttings for rooting, here curry plant



The rub is simply that many of the changes one might like to effect can’t be made until soils drain sufficiently for easy working. Yet fall’s slackening rhythm does predispose the mind to muse about garden possibilities, an integral part of creative engagement in designing and maintaining one. Finally there’s no longer any rush to complete a backlog of outdoor tasks. How fine it is, if infrequent in harried lives, to curl up on a couch with a blazing fire and allow a garden text to loft the mind into imagining what could be come next year. Briefly the would-be creative-gardener trumps the slave to routine garden tasks, and suddenly the possibilities can be imagined anew. Some part of gardening involves dreaming about what might be; fall turning wintry sees the return of the desire to conjure more definite ideas of the garden's trajectory, to aspire to shape one’s own garden in novel ways.


Even monochrome November light has its beauty


Fall thus portends the return of reading as further stimulus to imagining next year’s garden. I find such reading nearly impossible in summer's heat – particularly as garden labour reduces itself to the obsessive watering of living specimens, dead-heading of plants, and the removal of spent materials. Come moist-fall the survival imperative reigning over the garden in summer's drought can be forgotten, a most welcome evolution. Come moist-fall, green spreads its tentacles through the landscape once again. And with refreshed greenery comes new imagining, conditioned by the current year’s experience and leavened by the exotica captured in books. I’ve been enjoying browsing several new garden books this fall, but perhaps I’ll leave that side of it for later. Meantime, I’m waiting for another weather opening in order to pick the oak leaves out of my fish-bone cotoneasters, so they don't become habitat for webworms next spring! And after that, the compost heap awaits further attention. 
Sure hope it doesn’t rain!


2023 Postscript 

This article was written first in 2009, then rewritten in 2013. Published originally in The Seasoned Gardener, it's now been rewritten for this site in fall 2023. In the meantime, many things have changed climate-wise in Victoria and across the province. We still have a wet/dry climate in these parts, but the drought has been extending its season, intensifying its dessicating effect on landscape here and across southern BC. This has had grim outcomes for some communities (as in Lytton, BC where after recording a record temperature of 49.6 degrees celsius, the entire town burned down on June 30, 2021). Yet despite unprecedented heat and drought, that autumn also brought downpours so intense as to be described as 'atmospheric rivers' in Southern BC, flooding Sumas Prairie and washing out bridges, dykes and whole highways. Here in the Capital Region, rainfall that October was 121% of the monthly average since 1914, while November rains were 216% of the monthly average; so much rain fell that Sooke Lake Reservoir was already full by November 28th! Yet the following year, this rain-pattern reversed and the summer drought continued far into fall: November rains were 42% of the average, December's 47%, January's 40%, February's 81%. Our reservoir eventually filled up, but only in March (four months later than the previous year). So the era of climate change sees the number of months of severe drought extending, while the intensity of periodic downpours grows in some years, but is absent in others. This year (2023) brought very dry conditions both locally and across all of BC, making for the worst and most expensive wildfire season on record and confirming again that we're facing a climate crisis of gargantuan proportions. In fact, BC experienced its four most severe wildfire seasons ever over the past seven years, in 2017, 2018, 2021 and 2023. But 2023 outdid them all - as of September 10, some 22,560 square kilometres had burned, dwarfing the prior record of 13,543 square kilometres set in 2018. You can grasp the significance of this from the fact that between 1919 and 2016, only three wildfire seasons ever saw more than 5,000 kilometres burn. The intensity of these fires is increasing as well, making them much harder to fight on the ground. We don't yet understand the full implication of this, but we can see the effects of our drying climate across the regional landscape: cedars (a tree that likes its feet wet) are dying back en masse, while boxwood (a common garden shrub that used to able to survive droughts of three or four months quite handily) are showing signs of stress in the sustained dryness. Where it all goes over time is an open question: I merely point to the obvious signs that our way of life is modifying climate dramatically, while asking whether we shouldn't be modifying our way of life to align it better with nature?


Boxwood with southern exposure, near the Gorge, browning out

Boxwood with open exposure, browning out

When this article was first written in 2009, I had been gardening at Grange Road for some 21 years. To that point, the pattern of a wet/dry climate that reliably turned moist by November (at the latest) held consistent. What varied from year to year was the point at which the ground fully dried out, which changed from the second or third week of April to much later in the spring. Every so often, perhaps every four to five years, May would get ample rainfall and the ground wouldn't fully dry out until into June. There were other variables subject to annual change as well, like the amount of rain falling from June through September. It might be anywhere from a little to a fair amount. But typically, the earth would not become fully saturated again until November's rains, making this month the hinge for the swing from dryness to wetness. In the ensuing period, climate change has varied things further, extending the months of drought to five, six or even seven, while reducing the amount of rainfall delivered in the summer months and hastening the advent of dryness and the need for full-on watering. We have even seen the earth go dry as early as late March, and we've now seen dry fall extend through October and reach far into November.


Peonies to the left, flourishing in spring conditions in the nineties


Early in the nineties, I brought peonies (photo above) and irises from Ferncliff Gardens in the Fraser Valley to the garden on Grange Road. There was then sufficient annual moisture from rainfall to garden such exotics back then, and initially they flourished. But by the early 2000s the peonies especially were beginning to stunt from increasing drought, even with loads of hand watering. Today there are still a few sparse leaves of those original peony plantings, but they no longer flower (peonies don't respond well to thin soils, ongoing drought, and scorching sun). A few of the irises still flower, but they aren't entirely happy either. Irises that were part of the garden before my time, and which bloomed reliably for over three decades, have in the last three years mostly stopped flowering too. This is the new climate reality for our gardens, which suggests we are going to have to fundamentally change our approach to design, plantings and watering.

Drought has become severe enough that this October BC Hydro warned the public to expect more power outages due to falling trees. "Trees weakened by drought and associated disease can be more susceptible to wind...As storm season ramps up, a substantial number of dead and damaged trees and branches are expected to fall, contributing to power outages." Falling trees in adverse weather are the single biggest cause of power loss in British Columbia.