True: "The days grow short/ When you reach September." There's not much working light on the plots after 7:30 these nights.
But during the daylight hours the place is buzzing still, and even if everyone's onions are now up and hung out to dry like washing, or shelved away in sheds, the ground is full of things yet to harvest. Zucchinis are not over, and sweet peas, though my row is now a top-heavy chaos, continue to provide a generous bunch every few days. The spinach goes on going on, and so does the chard (the stems of which have as many different colors as a sunset). Jerusalem artichokes are flowering like lanky yellow daisies.
It's full of wonders, this month. Admittedly, the sky does have a sporadic tendency to darken and weep with sudden extravagance. But some of our softest and sweetest days predominate. September is, surely, "the kindest month." When else do you encounter such complete mildness? Such golden mornings amiable with mist? Such afternoons of self-assured, pervasive sunshine? The gentle light, which can fool plants into a pseudo-spring growth and even into flowering out of season, has no harshness. It coaxes and ripens. It no longer beats down from on high, but shines through everything.
In Yorkshire-speak we call this
winding-down of the year "the back-end." A neat, blunt phrase, even if a touch anatomical. But it is not particularly accurate, since this time is rather confused about itself, unsure if it's an ending or a beginning.
In the Middle Ages it was definitely an ending, since Sept. 29 was the last day of autumn (which had started at the beginning of August). It was "Michaelmas Day," (an ecclesiastical feast day named after St. Michael, the warrior-archangel). It was the day by which all harvesting should be complete. Next day, it was winter.
In our time, we hardly subscribe to such incisively prescribed seasons, as if the world on Sept. 30 will be ice and snowbound by official decree, and all flowering and fruiting must respectfully desist. It doesn't (and surely it didn't then, either), and I don't anticipate the cessation of a number of late-flowering plants on my plot, and especially not one in particular.
The presence, just by my shed, of this tall plant with its dozens of little purplish flowers, is not my doing. I inherited it, along with all the other resilient kinds of wild plants that jostle perennially along my unkempt boundaries.
This species arrived in Britain two centuries or so ago (by a process of reverse colonization) from North America. It came to be valued here as a worthy addition to the wilder regions of the herbaceous border.
Its elevation from weedhood to horticultural recognition did not, however, entirely suit its roguish self-image, so it escaped back into whatever wildernesses were at hand. Richard Mabey, in his "Flora Britannica" (Trafalgar Square, 1998), describes it today as an "adornment to urban wasteland" and mentions "railway embankments" as a favorite haunt. He might just as accurately have said "allotments," which were often set out by the railways, and worked by the railwaymen.
I inescapably associate this flower with the late summers of my childhood, when it was grown on my Dad's nursery alongside other - far grander - daisy-related plants: chrysanthemums and dahlias. These plants flower as the days grow shorter. The very smell of their leaves powerfully evokes for me everything that signifies the "back-end."
Chrysanthemums, dahlias, and ... well, they are known as "asters" in their native America. But in Britain we've nicknamed them "Michaelmas daisies." To celebrate the season.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society