The Garden Gate: Nature’s getting ready for fall

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

The hydrangea is one of the loveliest of summer flowers that linger on into fall.

It flourishes in either full sun or part shade, and in borders or containers. This old-fashioned bloom has been making a come back in popularity and is again available in a range of cultivars.

Native to woodlands in both North and South America and East Asia, hydrangeas include more than 80 species of evergreen and deciduous shrubs and vines. Probably the best known and one of the most popular examples is the hydrangea macrophyllas.

The Victorians loved these lovely flowers and used them in their many forms, from the climbing variety that trimmed their porches to the small snowy peegee, a little tree that needs both hot summers and chilly winters to survive.

The blooms of hydrangeas make wonderful bouquets to ornament the house. They can be carefully dried for lasting winter arrangements.

Soon we will be enjoying the flowers of early fall. There will be chrysanthemums, cosmos, asters, daisies and the wild roadside and highway-ornamenting flowers of chicory and Queen Anne's lace, which is really wild carrots.

Apples are ripe now, and cider mills will soon be making that marvelous autumn beverage, sweet cider. Farmers' markets and roadside stands are heaped with pickling cucumbers, squashes, pumpkins and the myriad fruits and vegetables of harvest time.

Think about making jam, jelly, potpourri and fall decorations with harvested treasures.

This is the time to bask in warm days, cool nights and starry skies.

In the language of flowers that the Victorians loved and quoted endlessly, a sweet pea stands for tenderness rather than passion, a feeling inspired by a crawl of pink blossoms along grandmother's fence and the remembered comforts of childhood's summer nights.

Of all the cottage flowers that have flooded back into our lives, sweet peas might be the most beloved for their bright abundance and their perfume, which is so reminiscent of the past.

Sweet peas may seem old-fashioned now, but they were already considered quaint in the early 1800s, when Emily Dickinson wrote poems about them and Harriet Beecher Stowe strung them up among the asters and gillyflowers in her Connecticut garden.

Back then they came in red, white, pink and blue. Now many other lovely colors — including salmon, maroon, royal purple and chocolate brown — offer a wider choice.

Native to southern Italy, these annuals belong to the family of leguminosae. If they have plenty of water and regular plant feedings, they will grow to as tall as 6 feet or even more.

Most of them are vining types and need a trellis, fence or at least a string to climb on.

There is also a bush variety, which will grow as a bush or a mass of greenery and blossom.

Some bloom exclusively in springtime, but others thrive best in the heat and humidity of midsummer and flower until late fall.

Chamomile is a foolproof garden charmer as significant for its great ornamental appeal as for its practical uses.

Its name is derived from Greek words meaning ground apple.

There are two distinct species of this herb that fill different needs in the garden: Roman or common chamomile, and German or wild chamomile.

Both have feathery, fern-like blossoms, and their scent is much like that of apples.

Roman chamomile is an erect, self-seeding annual that grows to about 3 feet high and produces a profusion of miniature daisy-like flowers.

German chamomile thrives in sunny gardens, but it can become invasive and appear in the wrong places, like in the middle of the lawn.

Nicknamed the plant's physician, chamomile seems to promote the health of plants growing near it. But its best feature is its flower, which can be dried to make tea, hair rinses, insect repellent or potpourri and antiseptics.

As we enjoy the lovely, golden days of late summer, the flowers in our gardens reflect the changing season. The first zinnias, the golden yarrows and chrysanthemums add their spice to the scene.

Famous 17th-century astrologer, botanist and physician Nicholas Culpeper wrote a long treatise about yarrow in which he claimed many virtues for this common plant, regarded as a weed in some areas.

The Indians used yarrow to make a herbal tea to aid ailments of the digestive system We now know it contains many minerals and vitamins.

Pouring a pint of boiling water over a handful of the golden blossoms will yield a fragrant, spicy tea.

We are beginning to notice a few red or yellow leaves on some of our trees and a scatter of them on the grass.

We have cool nights and early mornings and still some hot days, but we know that fall is suddenly close to us.

As the season changes, so do our gardens, providing constant variety and interest in a never-ending drama.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.