Hints of fall

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It’s been a remarkably cool summer. We’ve barely used our central air conditioning, and many nights we’ve had to turn off the attic fan because it cooled down the house too much. Delightful! Actually, if you look back at historical weather records, it’s been a normal summer. It’s just that over the past 20 years or so we’ve become accustomed to brutal, sultry summers. This one and last one were welcome respites.

My garden is still in late-summer mode, with Rudbeckias going strong, Boltonias just beginning to bloom, asters and goldenrod showing swelling buds, native grasses in bloom, and tomatoes ripening daily. Nevertheless, I see signs of fall all around me, due, no doubt, to the cool nighttime temperatures. The picture above shows spicebush (Lindera benzoin), planted in one of the shrub islands in my front lawn (and abundant in this area in shady, wet places). We noticed catbird activity in the island, and a quick check verified that the berries were ripening. The birds always know before we do!

Notice all the yellow leaves. You’ll often see just a few yellow or red leaves on a shrub with ripe fruit. I think the plant is using so much energy to ripen its fruit that it has to let go of a few relatively unimportant leaves. But leaf coloration, which we call a foliar flag, also signals ripe fruit to birds. So perhaps the spicebush is sending out a yellow leaf signal in addition to the red berry one. Or perhaps the nights have been so cool that leaf abscission has begun. I am also seeing yellow leaves on my ninebark shrubs and on plane trees in my daily walks around town. (I didn’t have time to post a list of garden chores this week, but if I had, I would have told you to stop pruning until woody plants go completely dormant. Do not prune while plants are using energy to shut down for the season.)

The birds are having a bonanza, or perhaps a smorgasbord, in my garden right now. In addition to the spicebush, the grey dogwood is also ripening its berries, and the Aronia and elderberries have just disappeared. The noise is unbelievable–catbirds let out ear-piercing screeches as they divebomb into shrubs for fruit. It’s highly entertaining. I will miss these noisy aerial acrobats when they migrate south in a few more weeks.

And then, of course, there are the goldfinches in the Rudbeckias and sunflowers:

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